Part 4 in the 5-part mini-series ‘Classic releases in the month of June 1984‘.
David Sylvian’s debut album is a beautiful combination of pop, jazz, sound scapes, stillness and emotion. Therefore, it’s part of my list of favorite debut albums.
At the end of 1982 art-rock band Japan fell apart. The band was set aside as a bunch of posers with large gestures and little content. I thought the band was superb, even more so since the release of the phenomenal Tin Drum. In June 1983 their last album was released, the live double album Oil On Canvas, which contained three new songs, that pointed towards the future a bit.
Japan had released five albums, each sounding different. The first two albums, Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives, could be called glam rock (even though the second album was a clear indication for the remainder of their musical career), but starting with Quiet Life the music changed radically. The music became calmer, richer and more subtle. Sylvian started to use his voice in a new way and bass player Mick Karn became more prominent in the band’s sound.
The final two studio albums, Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum, show a band that’s not afraid of experimenting and doesn’t shy away from taking risks. For many, the band’s image was the main reason for ridiculing them. Unjustly so, for Japan was a band of contradiction, which made the music exciting and different: angular and funky, warm and distant and efficient and intellectual. It’s a pity the band didn’t last. Egos were strong, Mick Karn and David Sylvian were both equally high-profile and popular.
While still in Japan, Sylvian had released solo songs. The impressive Bamboo Houses/Bamboo Music (part of my best 12-inches list) in 1982 and Forbidden Colours (part of the Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence soundtrack) in 1983. Both songs were made in collaboration with the Japanese Ryuicihi Sakamoto (known from Japanese pioneers Magic Yellow Orchestra).
That last song in particular, was popular and served its purpose as George Michael’s Careless Whisper for the ‘alternative girls’. What stood out for me on both songs was that they sounded warmer in terms of composition and sound, especially compared to the somewhat detached Tin Drum recordings.
The reason the 12″ version of The Art Of Parties (also a part of my best 12-inches list) was (and still is) among my favorite Japan songs, is that it sounds so organic, warm and funky. Was the upcoming solo album going in that direction, or not?
On June 26th, 1984, David Sylvian’s debut album was available in The Netherlands. It was an utter triumph. A stunning album that matched everything I hoped for and more. The album has everything that set David Sylvian apart from the rest at the time, and it pretty much sets an example of how (pop)music can (or should) sound.
The album starts off with Pulling Punches, a funk song with horns and the superior drumming by Steve Jansen (former Japan drummer). Off to a promising start.
Ink In The Well goes into an entirely different area. Mellow, jazzy containing beautiful subtle bass playing, supplemented with nice flugelhorn eruptions. The following Nostalgia is steeped in melancholy (“I’m drowning in my nostalgia”) and is gorgeous. Dark, moody and warm.
As the album’s prelude, Red Guitar was released as a single. The sparse drum pattern, which I always assumed to be coming from a drum machine, is played by Steve Jansen (yet more proof of his genius). The pattern is embellished by percussion. After listening to the album Red Guitar didn’t seem too exemplary for the album. Red Guitar is the most poppy song on the album and even turned into a small hit, and is a testament to Sylvian’s talent for writing great pop songs with melody and content. Ryuicihi Sakamoto plays the piano.
At the time I bought this album, it was a vinyl copy, so the record had to be flipped. Side B consisted of three songs, that differed completely from everything Sylvian had done before and was a radical change from side A of the debut.
Sylvian gets adventurous and collaborates with Holger Czukay (known by his work in the pioneeering Can) and John Hassell. It makes for a phenomenal B-side. It starts with Weathered Wall, a somewhat alienating song entirely aimed towards mood and perception. A beautiful start of this album side. If possible, Backwaters is even better and has an ingenious rhythm with an addictive bass riff and rich instrumentation by, among others, Holger Czukay.
Album closer and title song Brilliant Trees is everything one hopes music can rise to. Each and every time I listen to this, I hear it differently. It’s breathtakingly rich, the way it’s built up, the instruments used and the overall feel of it, it almost seems as if I hear the song for the very first time over and over again. My amazement about the fact that such a song even exists, seems to be everlasting. The rare beauty this song possesses is almost indescribable. Listen to it, is the only motto that really counts here.
Sylvian himself said:
“Maybe I wasn’t equipped to write about myself directly before. Even ‘Ghosts’ was an outside observation. You don’t feel the person singing the song is experiencing those feelings. ‘Brilliant Trees’, the song, is obviously something genuine.”
David Sylvian, 1984
Once Brilliant Trees finds its way into your system, it will never leave. As elusive as the album might be, it’s truly an essential addition to any music collection and provides a unique listening experience every time it’s played, making the listener discover something new every time. A masterpiece!
Three singles were culled from Brilliant Trees:
- Red Guitar
(released in May 1984)
- The Ink In The Well
(released in August 1984)
- Pulling Punches
(released in October 1984)
All song written by David Sylvian, unless stated otherwise.
- Pulling Punches
- Ink In The Well
- Red Guitar
- Weathered Wall (David Sylvian, Jon Hassell)
- Brilliant Trees (David Sylvian, Jon Hassell)
- David Sylvian – vocals, guitar, piano, tapes, synthesizer, percussion
- Steve Jansen – drums, synthesizer, percussion
- Holger Czukay – French horn, voices, guitar, dictaphone
- Wayne Braithwaite – bass on Pulling Punches, Red Guitar
- Ronny Drayton – guitar on Pulling Punches, Red Guitar
- Richard Barbieri – synthesizer on Pulling Punches, Weathered Wall
- Danny Thompson – double bass on Ink In The Well
- Kenny Wheeler – flugelhorn on Ink In The Well, Nostalgia
- Phil Palmer – guitar on Ink In The Well, Nostalgia
- Steve Nye – synthesizer on Nostalgia, Red Guitar
- Ryuichi Sakamoto – synthesizer, piano on Red Guitar, Weathered Wall, Brilliant Trees
- Mark Isham – trumpet on Pulling Punches, Red Guitar
- Jon Hassell – trumpet on Weathered Wall, Brilliant Trees
The Dutch press seemed more willing to give attention to David Sylvian, much more than Japan was given. In the Dutch translation of this article, a number of Dutch news clippings are enclosed. See that article, should you want to see/read them. The Dutch press was enthused. Probably just as remarkable, was Sylvian’s willingness to do interviews.
General consensus seems to dictate that the album was released on July 7th, 1984 (even Sylvian’s own davidsylvian.com states it). Yet, this is false. That date corresponds with the date the album entered the (English) album charts.
On June 26th, 1984, my high school organized the musical morning ‘Uit je bol’. The music I brought along was the David Sylvian song Brilliant Trees, which I had recorded off the (Dutch) radio the week before and was not available in any shop yet.
The song was broadcast as an exclusive teaser to the upcoming album at a radio show dedicated to new album releases. During the broadcast it was announced that the album would be released with a week.
I always assumed it was released on Friday June 29th, but recently I stumbled upon an advert, that announces the album will be available on June 26th. Hereby, the original release date has been set to June 26th, 1984.
As part of an elaborate remaster campaign in 2003, the last 3 Japan albums, the Rain Tree Crow album (Japan reunion) and the first 4 David Sylvian albums were re-released. A sublime release series, enhancing the album’s sound and refreshed artwork. Usually I don’t really like changes to the original artwork, but clearly David Sylvian does. This year the first solo albums were re-released on vinyl. The Brilliant Trees cover is almost identical to the 2003 remaster. The photo was stripped of its sepia filter and was a bit less zoomed in.
After Brilliant Trees
David Sylvian kept on releasing beautiful music. His collaborations with Robert Fripp and Holger Czukay (once again) were great too. With albums like Gone To Earth, Secrets Of The Beehive, The First Day (with Fripp), Dead Bees On A Cake and Blemish he created an impressive legacy. In between there was time for the temporary Japan reunion reunion in 1989: Rain Tree Crow.
Brilliant Trees remains a wondrous album. The music is rich, diverse and moving. Sylvian sings beautifully and the musicians are all the best at what they do (including every ex-Japan member, except Mick Karn). A perfect album to compensate for the demise of Japan.
What’s tour opinion on Brilliant Trees? Let me know!
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: David Sylvian debuts with the beautiful, subdued Brilliant Trees. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.
David Sylvian by Yuka Fujii image: samadhisound.com
David Sylvian & Ryuichi Sakamoto – Bamboo Houses / Bamboo Music image: discogs.com
David Sylvian – Brilliant Trees, David Sylvian – Brilliant Trees – Singles images: davidsylvian.com
David Sylvian – Brilliant Trees – Poster image: etsy.com
David Sylvian – Brilliant Trees – Announcement Nieuwsblad van het Noorden 06/23/1984 image: delpher.nl
David Sylvian – Brilliant Trees – Re-release 2003 and 2019 image: apple.com/apoplife.nl