16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Music that drifts through the mist.,
This review is from: Snow Borne Sorrow (Audio CD)
I'm not as ardent a devotee of Sylvian's work as some of the previous commentators, finding much of his work a bit bland and sterile. The only album of his that I've truly adored is 1987's Secrets of the Beehive, which felt like a complete piece of work, and featured some of his strongest songwriting to date. His last solo offering, Blemish, had some great moments, but for the most part, I just couldn't get past Derek Bailey's awful improvised guitar work or that feeling of meandering excess. Fear that Nine Horses, his new project with Steve Jansen and Burnt Friedman, would be more of the same can be laid to rest during that gorgeous opening track, Wonderful World, which effortlessly blends elements of jazz, pop and ambient trip-hop to sublime effect, capturing a hazy and wavering sense of dulled melancholy that will continue throughout the album.
For me, this is really the best thing Sylvian has done since Beehive, managing to push the musical boundaries in terms of production and arrangement, but also remembering to include some sweet melodies and the occasional hook. It's also an album that holds together exceedingly well, with each of the songs building to a collective momentum, with no sign of filler or fodder getting in the way of the greats... which is really the whole album!! The combination of the different styles works well together, whilst as lead vocalist, Sylvian is at his most resigned, offering up vocals in a combination of dejected mumbles and that mournful croon, whilst the addition of backing vocalist Stina Nordenstam, as well as the usual Sylvian/Jansen collaborators like Ryuichi Sakamoto and Arve Henriksen (amongst others), tip the album off the scales into the realms of the lush, ambient, dream-pop of bands like Cocteau Twins, Sigur Ros and late-period Talk Talk.
Musically, the diverse influences are used well, with Sylvian and co. managing to create music that is atmospheric (building to a mood and sustaining a feeling over generally long five-minute-plus song structures), but is also easy to listen to. As other commentators have noted, Snow Borne Sorrow is great a night-time record, one that captures that feeling of drifting, as all thoughts and feeling blur into a cacophony of noise before we drift off into sleep. It's very much in tune with past Sylvian endeavours, the previously noted Secrets of the Beehive, the good songs off Dead Bees On a Cake, and the songs from Brilliant Trees that drew less on 80's style production and more on free-form jazz (The Ink in the Well and Nostalgia spring to mind, for me). I've heard that it also brings to mind certain elements of the Rain Tree Crow project, though, having never heard that, I can't really comment. Regardless, Snow Borne Sorrow is magnificent stuff... a record that has its own style and creates an atmosphere that is fascinating and ripe for exploration.
As I said before, for me, there are no real "best songs", with the album pretty much flowing comfortably from one song to the next. However, if I was forced to pick favourites for some kind of lush-pop-compilation, then certainly Wonderful World, Darkest Birds, The Banality of Evil and The Librarian would all be potential candidates. Despite its flaws, it would seem that Blemish offered a new turning point for Sylvian... and, with that truculent bombardment of woe and minimalist experimentation out of his system he's been able to return to the great songwriting and performance style of recording that he'd been hinting at for so many years, creating an album that works perfectly from beginning to end, and seems to present yet another (possible) direction for his future career.
The production and overall performance of Nine Horses is excellent, with the keyboards, bass and drums merging perfectly with Friedman's programming and dense "sound-environment" work, whilst those backing vocals from Nordenstam are really just the icing on the cake. If you're a fan of Sylvian's previous work (whether with Japan, Rain Tree Crow, as a solo artist or from various collaborations) then you'll probably have this already. For anyone else, Snow Borne Sorrow offers a set of jazz-tinged ambient pop songs that are sure to appeal to anyone who has heard and appreciated albums like Laughing Stock by Talk Talk, Radiohead's Kid A and Amnesiac albums, Scott Walker's Climate of Hunter, Miles Davis' In A Silent Way, or the work of artists as disparate as Tom Waits and Portishead.