[22 May 2012]
For those unfamiliar with Japan singer David Sylvian’s solo work, a compilation such as A Victim of Stars is like a glorious brush on the cheek by a silk glove. Although songs included here are oftentimes more atmospheric than lush, the loving way in which each piece has been crafted and the overall ambience provided makes for a paradoxically subtle and complex experience. Due to the compilation’s restraint from instant gratification and its seamless linking of major label work with self-released material—Sylvian was a Virgin Records artist before releasing material on his SamadhiSound label—it also serves as a welcome product of another time.
Much of the work Sylvian released with Japan, creative enough in its own right, has long been overshadowed by Sylvian’s severely pretty image during that time. Much like Scott Walker, to whom he is often compared, Sylvian took the babe-gone-off-the-rails route and used his considerable skills to buoy his artistic integrity. That Sylvian has managed to work with a who’s who of experimental greats makes it seem as though it took little more than lifting a pinkie finger to do so.
Japan makes but one appearance on this chronological, two-disc release: a version of its biggest hit, “Ghosts”, opens disc one. Even though Sylvian’s artistic growth becomes more and more apparent as the compilation progresses, “Ghosts” appears as a jumping off point in this release’s context. Its torch song aspect, a chorus that semi-references blues standard “Wild is the Wind”, and the alienation the song instills all appear as seeds being planted. The songs which come next—Sylvian’s collaborations with electronic music pioneer and film score composer Ryuichi Sakamoto—fold in the rest of Sylvian’s more obvious musical motifs. “Bamboo Houses” and “Bamboo Music” are brilliant stabs at early electro, while “Forbidden Colours”, Sylvian’s first solo hit, is an indelible torch song.
Five songs in, the compilation begins to offer up Sylvian’s more impenetrable endeavors. Certain elements, such as the surprisingly non-embarrassing funk bass on “Pulling Punches, continue to root the more passive listener in surface familiarities, but by the time we arrive at “Pop Song”, a single released in 1989, we are aware that the title is bound to mislead.
The second disc begins in as accessible a fashion as possible, with the Robert Fripp-guesting “Jean the Birdman”, Fittingly, it is one of the few tracks, along with “Darkest Birds” from Sylvian’s Nine Horses project, that contains anything that could be considered rock elements. A collaboration between Sylvian’s brother Steve Jansen and electronic producer Burnt Friedman, some of the Nine Horses tracks serve as the compilation’s most remarkable. “Wonderful World” is as good example as any of Sylvian’s ability of culling elements from other artists and marking those elements in his own style. Something in the song’s stride has a Scott 3 or 4 feel to it, but one could never mistake it as something Scott Walker created. Seeing as Walker’s last release was in 2006, we should all count ourselves lucky that Sylvian did not follow his lead in terms of artistic output; a brand new Sylvian track, the good as ever “Where’s Your Gravity?” ends the second disc.
As a primer for those intrigued by David Sylvian’s solo work, A Victim of Stars serves its purpose wonderfully. Yet, in some instances the selected songs fail to be as impactful as on their original releases. “I Surrender”, the opening track from 1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake, is sufficiently hypnotic out of context, but listening to the album it hails from as a whole is like moving through dream states. A Victim of Stars is a fine testament to Sylvian’s artistry, but by all means new listeners shouldn’t stop there.