Those who admire David Sylvian’s solo trajectory over the last 26 years do so, in part, because the language of his music has changed so drastically and so often. Even from the post-Japan romantic pop of his debut, Brilliant Trees, to the jazz-inflected ambiences of Gone to Earth only a few years later, composition and timbre have morphed considerably. Sleepwalkers is a compilation of non-album collaborations encompassing the last 10 years, and now, the only sound unifying all tracks is the dark-tinged smoothness of Sylvian’s voice. The music ranges far and wide, embracing acoustic and electronic instruments with equal frequency while allowing for the pregnant pauses that Sylvian uses to interject his pithy lines.
If points of definition in Sylvian’s career might be referenced, the musical language here does not go beyond that on 2003’s stark Blemish, save in one case. As with that album, the ghosts of instruments related to popular music rear their heads regularly. Even the outtake from Manifon that gives the compilation its title, a collaboration with Martin Brandlmayer, does not share a soundworld with Sylvian’s latest disc. That said, the song’s scorching lyrics and percussion, by turns stuttering and booming, makes it a wonderful opener. By way of fine contrast, at the other end of the spectrum, the only solo track, “Trauma,” bristles with energy and writhes through a complex drone. Even the more “traditional” material, such as the two Nine Horses tracks, are only so on the surface, brimming with sublimated energy and dotted with rhythmic accents.
The album’s biggest challenge comes with “Five Lines,” the most recent track here and a first-time collaboration with composer Dai Fujikura. The lean-textured impressionistic strings are a perfect foil to the spare vocals, each gesture brimming with drama. Fujikura thrives on staggered repetition, which is also in play throughout this miniature masterpiece. As with Webern’s piano variation set, we get glimpses of the same motivic material from many angles, but Sylvian’s melodies keep the situation fresh and the piece from stagnation.
As good as this album is, it’s clearly meant for more recently initiated listeners. Most of the material has been available before, and the alternative mixes don’t add much to these songs. For die-hard fans, and I’m one, the disc just conjures impatience for the next Sylvian full-length.