On the Periphery
David Sylvian solo career bio proves exhaustive
By August March
As English rock group Japan began their commercial and critical ascendance in the early ’80s, frontman David Sylvian went underground. Long-brewing creative differences with cohort/bassist Mick Karn, plus Sylvian’s attachment to Karn’s ex, Yuka Fujii, have long been blamed for the split that doomed Japan. Many argue that this fateful end during the beginning gave Sylvian the momentum he needed to reach out to, be absorbed into and ultimately and arguably become a key voice of the avant-garde.
Christopher E. Young’s biography of Sylvian’s solo years, On the Periphery, does its best to marginalize the artist’s work as a new wave rocker with a band called Japan by presenting itself as a deeply credible, completist-oriented if exhaustive tome with academic underpinnings.
Young’s penchant for formalism, analysis and detail can be attributed to his long career as a journalist. His father’s work as a musicologist must have had some influence on this exploration of Sylvian’s life and work, too; the result is a rock and roll biography that is unusually dense and discursive.
The analysis of Sylvian’s intentions and influences as he moved away from Japan and toward his solo career takes the time to focus not only on events but also ideas. Young discusses the impact of serialist composer Stockhausen, postmodern sculptor Joseph Beuys, existentialist philosophy and the Kabbalah on Sylvian’s artistic output. Early on, Young determines that while Sylvian’s output “drew on numerous influences,” his voice, the narrative of his vision—at once isolated and fragile as well as newly provocative—is the heart of a body of work as unique as it is comparable to the masters.
It’s almost as if the text here functions as a symbol of the postmodern sensory overload that was one of [David] Sylvian’s reasons for moving against the grain and toward the periphery.
While this sort of hagiography is all too common in the world of rock and roll biography, Young does a fine job of backing up claims of Sylvian’s place among an implied pantheon with plenty of notes and references to other academic and artistic works and personages. This certainly adds some to the credibility of Young's overarching premise that Sylvian is an under-appreciated but well-regarded genius.
His concurrent reportage on the artist’s continual struggle with various aspects of human existence adds volume to this portrayal, but it may cause readers to wonder why one needs access to such an overwhelming amount of detail. It’s almost as if the text here functions as a symbol of the postmodern sensory overload that was one of Sylvian’s reasons for moving against the grain and toward the periphery.
The musical details in this book are wide-ranging and multifaceted, but they can be overwhelming in terms of their occurrence. Sylvian’s compositions and their lyrics are painstakingly analyzed and deconstructed; the author is unafraid to take narrative leaps—some of them wildly tangential—in his effort to suss out Sylvian’s motion and motivations.
Ultimately Young’s biography of David Sylvian demonstrates the duality of this genre and consequently that of the rocanrol avant-garde. On one end is this book and artists like Sylvian; on the other end, stuff like No One Here Gets Out Alive or Hammer of the Gods come to mind.
On the Periphery: David Sylvian—The Solo Years
Christopher E. Young
Malin Publishing Ltd.
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