Top 40 Over 40.33: Blemish

I think I’ve found my personal record of the year. It’s Roberta Flack’s First Take. There’s a song on it called I Told Jesus that joins Jesus is Waiting by Al Green as the only songs that give me a feel for what it is about Christianity that moves people. (I was raised in a secular humanist family, and never set foot in a church as a child.) It was recommended to me by Simon Joyner, and it made me think back to the last time I felt joined at the hip with an album.

Last year, the record I listened to the most was Blemish by David Sylvian. (Supposedly it’s about to be reissued on vinyl – copies on Discogs go for astronomical sums.). The album was recommended to me by Scott Solter while we were working on a new project together last year. I was thinking of it recently when I learned from Doug Henwood’s show Behind the News that the late great Mark Fisher titled his book Ghosts: Essays on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures after one the best known tracks from Sylvian’s heyday with the group Japan in the 1980’s. The concept of Hauntology derives from Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, which I read and liked about 6 years ago. That book was published in 1993 in the wake of the supposed end of the Cold War as a challenge to the claim that liberal democracy and capitalism would be a permanently dominant form of social organization in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies – what C.L.R. James argued was in fact State Capitalism, not socialism. Derrida’s text presented an afterlife for Marxian analysis as a welcome reminder of alternate possibilities in the midst of a seemingly immovable capitalist force. Similarly, Blemish explores the experience of loss as one that is pregnant with playful possibilities for growth and transformation rather than an occasion for bitterness and resignation. That’s why I’m including this in this series.

The losses in question are ones that are common for middle aged rock musicians: transitioning out of a major label record contract and going through a divorce. What’s striking to me about the way it feels to listen to Blemish is the complete absence of self pity or ego clinging in the face of these experiences. This is ensured by the formal choices with which the lyrical content is presented. There are no mournful ballads, no harrowing confessions, nothing that turns bitter anger into an anthemic catharsis à la Already Gone by the Eagles. Texture rules the day, with guitars being played by tapping them on the back of the neck to produce washes of sound rather than chords or arpeggiated riffs. Synths arrive and pass like clouds. Their swells on The Only Daughter remind me of the great line from my favorite Soft Boys song, I Got the Hots; “Baking Land Under Creamy Skies.”

Ambient, yes, but with a catch: where much ambient music avoids the use of lyrics and the voice, this project thrusts a closely mic’d and reverb-free croon out front. Sometimes he almost makes me think of Frank Sinatra, he’s so syrupy. But Sylvian intentionally removes his voice from the usual supports that pull listeners into being swept off their feet by a vocal narrative. This is most extreme with the few cuts that feature the guitar playing of Derek Bailey, which is well known for avoiding repetition or pop motifs in favor of a poetic and restrained but brutal poetry that sounds like a sculptor looking for finds in a pile of scrap metal. But the effect of slightly uncomfortable contrast is present throughout.

I can’t think of another album where a male vocalist allows the listener to hear him sing about a love interest in such a way as to make it practically impossible to accept his point of view at face value. Vocals are emotionally manipulative by design – but Sylvian seems to want to point us towards an available reality that is unconcerned with the agenda of that manipulation, and, not only that, capable of healing its wounds without trying to get rid of them. Paradoxically, that process of getting closer to the pain seems to have been what eventually did allow them to move through, as Sylvian writes on his website:

“I wanted to get into those difficult emotions, and penetrate them as deeply as I felt I was capable of doing, in the security of that working space. So, although there were elements of my life that were bringing all these negative emotions to the fore, what I was doing in the studio was taking them further – whereas in life we try to restrain them, we hold them back. We don’t allow ourselves to go too far with it because they feel dangerous, they feel threatening. Living through these emotions was very difficult, but finding a voice for them was so cathartic. After that six-week period, I’d felt I’d worked through some very difficult emotions. I felt an enormous amount of release.’”

The record may begin with Sylvian mournfully singing “She was a friend of mine…I stand outside of her, she doesn’t notice at all,” but by the end of it he’s making a mysterious adventure out of going late night shopping and declaring “How little we need to be happy, to be really happy.” And though the record seems to relish in celebrating the removal of the commercial pressures of a major label deal by removing drums altogether, the final track, A Fire In the Forest, closes the album with a major hook courtesy of the great guitarist Christian Fennesz that tells us Sylvian brought his pop chops with him into the woods of New Hampshire when he left England.

I found myself, as a native New Englander, wondering – why New Hampshire? The most conservative state in New England. The tax free Florida, the backwards Mississippi of New England with its ghosts of John Sununu and tax free liquor and hard, granite-filled, unforgiving soil. Why not Vermont? Comparatively progressive, more forgiving in its soil, home to many milk cows and green mountains and more post-hippy culture. And why not England, with its remnants of the NHS still yet to be fully unraveled? I picture Sylvian proving the Pere Ubu line “We can live in the empty spaces of this life” by wandering happily through the aisles of a Price Chopper supermarket going Late Night Shopping with a new date in the wake of his divorce. Perhaps there’s a dharma center in New Hampshire Sylvian likes to practice at, a pastime suggested by the title of his small label, Samadhi Sound.

One fruit from living in NH: Sylvian’s role as a consultant in the Quebec City production of Toshimaru Nakamura’s 2013 great album No Input Mixing Board #8. The liner notes on the album’s Bandcamp page set the following scene as the kind of stray locales Sylvian continues to wander through with true sonic curiosity:

“David Sylvian drove up from his home in New Hampshire to join us. We worked collaboratively for two days. After David left, the studio looked completely different from when I arrived. Around my no-input mixing board was a mess of cables, microphones and loud speakers, a set up suggested by David, and there I was very tempted to stay for another day to do some more recordings by myself. The result of all this is here.”

Solter tells me that Sylvian has stopped making records because he thinks people don’t have the attention span to make it worthwhile in this age of internet distraction. I’d say too bad – but not necessarily. This album makes me feel like there’s happiness to be found by paying close attention to all kinds of unanticipated and errant micro realities.

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