*This review was altered on Sept. 18, 2009.
In some ways, David Sylvian is trapped in elegant amber, thanks to his stellar work fronting Japan, the U.K. act that evolved into a perfect art-dance bridge from mid-’70s David Bowie to Duran Duran. But the numerous impulses that have driven his muse for years, including his near-countless partnerships with performers ranging from Robert Fripp and Ryuichi Sakamoto to younger guns such as neo-electrogaze icon Fennesz—not to mention an often-intense private life Sylvian has guarded as carefully as his public image—has meant music that long resisted easy categorization. For any short, pop-oriented ballad of his, one could name a cryptic, lengthy composition in turn.
Manafon, his first full solo release since 2003’s Blemish, continues and almost summarizes this mix of styles, and arguably only one thing—his still-amazing voice, the cracks and strains of age adding a rough resonance without ruining it—connects him with even his recent past work. Spare, distressed arrangements, created from fragments of performances with a dizzying array of avant-garde collaborators (including Fennesz; Japanese multi-instrumentalist Otomo Yoshihide; and former and present affiliates of AMM such as saxophonist Evan Parker, guitarist Keith Rowe and pianist John Tilbury) emphasize space and silence rather than full-ensemble swing, his voice sitting forward in the mix with a sudden, naked intensity. When he first appears on the compelling opener “Small Metal Gods,” the effect is startling, even as he softly croons about intense emotional distress—perhaps even more of a hallmark of this album as it was of Blemish.
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Song for song, Manafon’s flowing, crumbling beauty suggests striking points of comparison: Frank Sinatra’s most blasted, bleak songs; the flowing, uneasy depths of mid-’70s Miles Davis; the abstract serenity of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. But in the end, it is exactly what it always was—“just” another David Sylvian album, apart from anything but itself.