Friday, July 8, 2011
Died in the Wool: David Sylvian Mingles with Christ and High Art
By Brian Nixon
Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS) -- Hands down, my favorite musical release of 2009 was British musician David Sylvian’s masterpiece, Manafon. It is an album of stark beauty and personal confession. Even the word brilliant is too shallow to describe it.
Manafon is small village in the county of Powys, Wales, UK, where Thomas lived and wrote much of his finest poetry.
By using the name “Manafon,” was Sylvian dropping us a hint? Was Sylvian seeking a new haven for his music and life? The artwork on Manafon seems to say so: green forests, deer, foxes, and rabbits abound. Life is manifest.
But then mystery enters: The artwork also shows Sylvian holding a dead rabbit (http://www.manafon.com/).
In many cultures around the world, the rabbit symbolizes life, philosophy, and values. Was the artwork used on Manafon communicating that Sylvian is seeking a new life—dying to his previous philosophy? Was the dead rabbit in David’s hand representative of a changing value system?
Can’t be too sure.
But what can be said is that Sylvian values art, and most of the artwork he has used throughout his 33-year career is well thought out and of high quality. To me, there seems to be rhyme and reason behind the use of the symbols.
Another intriguing question entered my mind based upon the lyrics of several of the songs on Manafon: Was Sylvian leaving his eastern mysticism (a combination of Buddhism and Hinduism) and turning to a monotheistic worldview?
Though not clearly stated in the lyrics, whispers of lyrical discontentment seem to indicate this may be the case.
Sylvian sings in the song “Small Metal Gods”:
“I’ve placed the gods
If this song is personal in nature, it’s quite revealing. Sylvian sings that he is putting away “the gods” and is “evening the score,” possibly turning to the antithesis of a polytheistic worldview: monotheism. In other words, Sylvian may be turning to the God who does answer prayers.
In the song “Forbidden Colors,” co-written by Ryuichi Sakamoto for the movie Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Sylvian writes:
“The wounds on your hands never seem to heal, I though all I needed was to believe. Here am I a lifetime away from you. The blood of Christ, or the beat of my heart.”
There’s no question about the topic of “Forbidden Colors”—Sylvian wrestled with the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Sylvian’s breakthrough solo record, Brilliant Trees, also had conversations with a Judeo-Christian worldview. On songs such as “Weathered Wall,” he wrote:
“You were someone to believe in
Then again in 1986, Sylvian’s whole album, Gone to Earth, is replete with Christian symbolism and themes (albeit mystical).
From 1987 to 2003 (the year Sylvain released Blemish, an album questioning much in his life), he turned his attention toward Eastern mysticism.
The bottom line is this: though the past two decades of Sylvian’s career was influenced by his interest in Eastern mysticism and religion (on albums such as Dead Bees on a Cake, Approaching Silence, and Darshan), the fact is that Sylvian is no stranger to a Judeo-Christian worldview—especially in his early career.
On some level, Sylvian’s artistic output can be represented as a dance between his interest in polytheism (as represented by Hinduism) and monotheism (as represented by Christianity).
So imagine my surprise as I opened up the new album by Sylvian entitled, Died in the Wool: Manafon Variations, only to see the artwork by Irishman George Bolster, reaming with Christian symbolism (http://www.georgebolster.net).
My speculation deepened.
On the back of the CD is a portrait of a lamb with its legs tied together, reminiscent of several masterworks depicting Christian symbolism. The name of the work is “To Bind a God.”
On the inside of the CD is a side portrait of Jesus in a loincloth, hands tied by an elusive wrap and handcuffs. The portrait appears to be a depiction of Christ before His crucifixion. The work, as stated in the liner notes, is “Christ: The Original Hippie.”
As you open the CD, a credit sheet is given. On the front of the sheet of paper, the hands of Christ are highlighted. No longer elusive as depicted in the middle of the CD, the hand binding is clearly seen. Written on the hands is the word love.
The symbolism between the three pieces of art in the CD is quite clear (at least interpreted by its surface meaning): The bound lamb is Christ—and Christ is love. Even the title of the album—Died in the Wool—points to a larger symbolic concept: the wool symbolically represents the Lamb, which is Jesus. And as the images portrayed in the CD case reveal, Jesus is ready to die.
The only intriguing element within the totality of the art is the front cover: Sylvian is not listening to the earphones—he’s looking up in contemplation.
Is Sylvian thinking through the dilemma he posed on the album Manafon? Is he no longer listening to his former path of Eastern mysticism—as portrayed by the razor-like ice or fire? Is he burying the “small metal gods” looking for the God of love? Or, is his possible return to monotheism a “variation” (as the subtitle of the Died in the Wool states) of his overall spiritual quest?
Again, we may never know.
But many of the compositions on Died in the Wool are variations on works first presented on Manafon. In a way, the music is an expansion on his previous masterpiece.
Helping Sylvian develop these musical themes are some fine musicians and composers, including Dai Fujikura, Christian Fennesz, and Werner Dafeldecker. They are artists of the highest caliber, creating audible paintings from their performance and arrangements.
The take home point in all if this chatter is simple: Sylvian created another intriguing artistic album, a masterwork all its own. Though dependent on Manafon, Died in the Wool is a stand-alone album worthy of repeated listening and analysis. It is truly high art.
And concerning the Christian symbolism found throughout Died in the Wool, if Jesus inspired such wonderful art within the life of Sylvian (and I’m not saying that He has), then thanks be to God. If Jesus inspires people to create art such as this, then I say give us more of Jesus.
Like countless artists throughout the centuries, the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Christ has elicited and produced some of the greatest works of art in history. And if Sylvian continues with this inspiration, his works may one day sit on the mantle with those who have treaded the path before him: creating beauty for God’s glory.
For a wonderful review of the music on Died in the Wool. I recommend All About Jazz’s, John Kelman, astute assessment of its importance. (http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=39607).
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This story is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of the ASSIST News Service or ASSIST Ministries.