The main issue for author/ journalist Christopher Young is how do you write a biography about someone who doesn’t want to be known? His subject, the somewhat reclusive vocalist and composer David Sylvian, began life in the spotlight in the pop group Japan, though upon their demise launched an increasingly experimental solo career. Even in the early days he experienced a somewhat uneasy relationship with fame, and over subsequent years as his music has become progressively more adventurous and boundary pushing, he has stepped back, becoming adept at controlling the trickle of information that enters the public sphere.
Consequently Young, a long-time fan, has pored over the morsels of information that is available from previous interviews and relates what he finds specifically back to an interpretation of Sylvian’s music and lyrics. A cocaine addiction and relationship breakdown barely rate a paragraph or two and even then are specifically drawn back to his mindset at the time of recording Brilliant Trees. Marriage, children, alcohol use, therapy, personal crises, they’re all in here, but they’re not approached with Mojo’s aggrandising or with salacious, malice, rather Young charts Sylvian’s musical and spiritual development hand in hand with his life experiences, and does so in an exhaustive manner. References abound from Jean Cocteau to Joseph Beuys, from Nietzsche to Sufism to Buddhism to Navajo Indian traditions. Young finds numerous explicit and implied lyrical allusions and this is a real strength of the book. He gives equal weight to examining and ultimately explaining each of these aspects and then relates it back to Sylvian’s outlook at the time. In this sense On The Periphery, with seemingly little direct access to the man himself, is a truly unique insight into his mind, as expressed through his music and in particular his lyrics. It’s a guide to Sylvian’s spiritual development, and to some extent by chronicling and examining his influences; the book becomes something of a guide through some of the most innovative thinkers, theorists and practitioners of the 20th century.
What quickly becomes apparent as Young takes us through each album is the pedigree of his collaborators, and also the value he places upon collaboration. Young manages also to successfully chart the development of Sylvian’s compositional style and approach, often explicitly linked to whom he was working with in the studio. Again we’re talking about some of the most renowned and adventurous performers around. The likes of Can’s Holger Czukay, Jon Hassell, Mark Isham, Ryuchi Sakamoto, Keith Rowe, Derek Bailey, Christian Fennesz, Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M, Robert Fripp, Marc Ribot, Talvin Singh, Evan Parker, Phillip Jeck and a seemingly endless cast of others, many of whom would return again and again to work with him.
There are personal insights littered throughout however, discussions about using the studio as a tool for facing the personal issues that he was unable to face in life, the effects of his marriage breakup, and the continual frustrations with lack of money. He speaks of the liberation Sylvian felt in going solo and being able to discover his voice and communicate freed from the shackles of Japan. He also discusses Sylvian’s other passions such as painting, art collecting and photography.
What Young presents is a portrait of an artist over thirty odd years, drawing out and exploring connections and highlighting the development of one of the most unique and fascinating composers currently in operation. Exhaustedly researched, it’s a dense read yet revelations abound with alarming regularity. One things for sure, for some of us who have been bemused and at times bamboozled by Sylvian’s work in the past – once you read On The Periphery, you’ll never hear his music the same again.