Review Summary: There is always sunshine, above the grey sky...Blemish
is a hard album to listen to. Sonically, it’s full of rough feedback sounds and jarringly percussive guitar picking, making it unlike anything else in popular music. But commercially, Blemish
was David Sylvian
’s final act of commercial unmooring. For decades after he left his band Japan
, Sylvian tried to establish himself as something more than a passing fad. Even though much of his early aesthetic was indebted to ‘70s androgynes like David Bowie
and Kate Bush
, Sylvian never quite fell into a singular aesthetic or artistic lineage like they did. His first few years post-Japan were characterized by his music’s statelessness; a guitar ballad here, an ambient suite there. Sometimes he went full on pop (see: “Forbidden Colours,” “Orpheus”), and other times he pursued some of the densest and most impenetrable sounds imaginable. And while Secrets of the Beehive
found him making his first truly impressive solo artistic statement, it wasn’t until Blemish
that Sylvian truly and honestly let go of any and all pretense with regards to his music. And that letting go resulted in one of the most remarkable records ever committed to wax.
The context surrounding Blemish
is all about relationships. Externally, Sylvian had become dissatisfied with his record label’s treatment of his Art and the renewed efforts to get him to make something commercial. This fraught relationship had been continuing for a while, initially coming to a head in 1989 when Virgin forced Sylvian to write a “pop song.” The resultant song, cleverly titled “Pop Song,” was a plinky and subversive effort, eerily reminiscent of Sylvian’s starmaking collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto
, “Forbidden Colours.” Unamused, Virgin ultimately reduced Sylvian’s touring and studio budgets, making it harder and harder for him to pursue his true vision.
This arm-twisting resulted in Sylvian making minor concessions: his collaborative album with Robert Fripp
in 1993 boasted a minor hit in “Jean the Birdman,” and Dead Bees on a Cake
’s “I Surrender” hit the UK Top 40, making it Sylvian’s second best-performing non-Japan single (after the aforementioned “Forbidden Colours”). The overall assessment of Dead Bees
was that it killed much of the artistic progress made in Sylvian’s prior classic Secrets of the Beehive
. Dead bees indeed. It’s fair to say that Sylvian’s relationship with his label had reached a breaking point around the turn of the century, and he’d had quite enough of compromise. But the true relational impetus for Blemish
came in the dissolution of his decades-long marriage to Ingrid Chavez.
The devastation Sylvian experienced as both his personal and professional lives unraveled is completely on display in the first few minutes of the album, as the title track's pulsating synths promote a claustrophobic feel. The sounds of amp feedback and jarring drones close in. As a listener, a subtle anguish begins as the first true chord comes into view. And then, a voice. “I fall outside of her, she doesn’t notice.” As the track progresses and becomes even more claustrophobic, Sylvian’s voice becomes more present, more confrontational. This production trick was apparently intentional, as Sylvian noted later in an interview with Pitchfork that he wanted it to be like “this entity […] was in the room, with me, having this dialogue with me.” That apparitional quality, that feeling of something emerging from the music and entering the space, is present throughout the album, and as an introduction and initial producer of that feeling, “Blemish” is perfect.
As soon as that “entity” begins to reach out and make its final entry into your space, the song fades out. That loss of connection, at a seminal moment in the emotional arc of the album, hurts. What hurts more is how “The Good Son” explodes, all dissonant guitar and passive-aggressive lyrics about a son supposedly trying his hardest to be good to a family that rejects him at almost every turn. “He tells himself it's too far to come to redefine his aspirations to be the good son,” he intones, suggesting a fully grown man still clinging to the false narratives of his childhood. Sylvian contrasts this man who “muscles his way in and stays for life” with “The Only Daughter,” a somber piece about a girl who, after being used in the worst way imaginable, is asked simply to be “gone by morning.” This lyrical juxtaposition of her being the narrator’s “friend” and his cold dismissal of her when “the ending is clean” colors this relationship as something darker and more cancerous. He uses her for “the quirk, the fuss, the Vaseline,” only to discard her before the morning. It speaks to the contrasting roles that the son and daughter play in the family. The son is useless, good only for recalling his own wasted potential and forcing his way into a family that doesn’t really want him. The daughter is the opposite; she’s valuable in furthering the narrator’s ends, but the relations with her are ultimately ephemeral.
“I don’t know how long she’s been here with me, but it’s been a long time coming.” These words kick off “The Heart Knows Better,” a song that brings the album’s central theme of relational decay into focus. This song is a perfect example of the brilliant maturity of Sylvian’s songwriting on Blemish
. On previous releases, Sylvian had demonstrated a profound literacy in his lyricism, but many of his more ambitious references bordered on pretentious. “Red Guitar” and “Orpheus” are perfect examples of this. But on Blemish
, Sylvian’s lyrics emerge as more personal, more relatable and miles-ahead of anything he’d done before. “And the mind’s divisive, but the heart knows better.” This chorus, wordy as it is, perfectly conveys the feelings that unfaithful and uncommitted people feel in relationships that they’re stuck in. The mind, as a rational body, is torn between being alone or together, being faithful or not. The mind ultimately facilitates the dissolution and the impropriety. But the heart, in its inherent altruism, knows the truth. The heart, outside of all the thoughts and rationale, knows better
The ability to take complex emotions and narratives and distill them into something effortlessly poetic seems like a prerequisite in an era of Frank Ocean
s and James Blake
s. But Sylvian’s near unparalleled ability to bring a headiness and an intellectual weight to purely emotional proceedings was peerless at the time. In many ways, it still is. “Late Night Shopping” does this immaculately. The need to escape, the need for excuses, the need for a distraction, for anything and nothing in particular, all comes through in this song’s wonky jaunt. “We don’t need to need a thing, late night shopping.” Sylvian, in this short song, conveys an entire narrative through strangely enchanting and vague lyrics. This
is the true majesty of Blemish
But something that truly makes the lyrics pop is the experimental nature of the album’s sonics. Whether it’s Derek Bailey’s sporadic and largely improvised guitarwork, or the soft glitchy sonics of Fennesz
(who pitches in on the album’s best track, “A Fire in the Forest”), the album boasts enough texture and idiosyncrasy to delight anyone with a good pair of headphones. Whether it’s the apparitional “Blemish,” the stark “How Little We Need to Be Happy” or the beatific “A Fire in the Forest,” the production on Blemish
is inextricably linked to the lyricism, paralleling the poetic beauty of Sylvian’s words.
For people looking for a new “Bamboo Trees” or “I Surrender,” Blemish
may register as a disappointment. With the exception of “A Fire in the Forest” which may well be the most depressingly beautiful song of the decade, if not the century, there’s no immediately identifiable choruses or singles on this project. The handclaps of “Late Night Shopping” and the bassy feedback of “Blemish” are the only things resembling a rhythm section on this album. But given time and attention, Blemish
reveals itself to be a modern classic, one that fearlessly and deftly uses poetic songwriting and outré production to tell a striking and complete narrative.
It’s an absolute crime or abdication of duty that this album isn’t more widely available. It is, without a doubt, Sylvian’s best and one of the best period.