Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Albums of Influence: Gone To Earth by David Sylvian

"Gone To Earth" original album cover

I heard this album when I was a senior in high school. One of my friends put "Taking The Veil" on a mixtape. I was entranced by its sophisticated chords, its fretless bass, meticulous production, and lyrics referencing Max Ernst (a favorite artist).

I bought the double vinyl LP used at a local record store. The gatefold's front cover suggested something vaguely mystical. An amulet? Some kind of religious symbols?

The album is two discs. The first is seven long-ish songs. They are quite a step away from Japan's New Romantic pop songs. While they still have verses and choruses, the harmonic choices are more interesting, the melodies go in unusual directions, and Sylvian sings in his deeper "mature" voice. There's nothing you'll dance to, and the melodies aren't exactly built for singing along.

The record is practically adult contemporary. It's got great players (Robert Fripp! Bill Nelson! Mel Collins! B.J. Cole! Kenny WheelerSteve Nye!), piano, soprano sax(!), flugelhorn, and drums that are both quiet and booming. It has a jazzy, almost easy-listening vibe. The title track is the one exception, which weds a more angular melody to little more than Fripp's skronking bent-metal guitar.

It reminds me a bit of Sting's "The Dream of The Blue Turtles", which was recorded around the same time (1985) and was another example of a pop singer trying to establish a solo career by "going jazz", growing up, and moving in a slightly smoother direction. (Though I think Sylvian's record is by far more interesting and timeless).

"Gone To Earth" is overwhelmingly tasteful, which is perhaps the only bad thing you can say about this album, if not David Sylvian himself. It's not crazy or dangerous or ROCK! at all. It's beautiful and relaxed.

Sylvian's voice is gorgeous, and given plenty of space by the dynamic, wide-open sound of the record. The mix is fantastic -- I occasionally use it as a reference when testing systems or doing my own audio work. The 2003 remastered CD is one of the best-sounding examples of the compact disc I have heard.

The second disc of the album is ambient music. No singing. Just minimal, looping tracks, built up from synthesizers and guitars. A few tracks have some vocal samples, all but obscured by reverb and EQ. I found them compelling, even if the titles edge from mystical to borderline new age corn.

This album has influenced me in different ways at different times. Initially, I was inspired by the music's harmonic language, vibe, and production. I hoped I could eventually move beyond my simplistic song construction and chord vocabulary to something more like this.

I became interested in how Sylvian's lyric choices also affected the record. The lyrics are cryptic (and not reproduced on the album) and, per Sylvian, "intermingles the personal with the themes of gnosticism and alchemy".

I also was surprised (and inspired) by someone who was such a famous singer choosing to make instrumental ambient music.

Later, I began to appreciate what this record had represented for Sylvian -- a bold step away from his pop career towards something unknown, new, and strange. A choice to do the difficult thing, and to keep challenging himself.  

Sylvian would go on to make a few more adult contemporary-ish records as the 20th century ended ("Secrets of the Beehive", "Dead Bees on a Cake") before getting weirder, darker, and artier as befits the 21st century (notably, "Blemish" and "Manafon").

Sylvian is still occasionally making records, and they are beguiling works of art, and continue to inspire and influence me. Here's an interview where he reflects on some of his work.

David Sylvian - "Taking The Veil"

David Sylvian - "The Healing Place"


[Second of three "adult contemporary" albums in this series. "Diamond Life" was the first.]

No comments: