The best of David Sylvian and Japan

When Bryan Ferry appears in a vision, you look for subsequent manifestations in soup bowls, hubcaps, clouds of vape smoke, and Negronis. Wedge haircuts were endangered species in 1994, so David Sylvian and Japan got me hard at the moment when his generation looked louche. But Ferry had released no new material in seven years, thus beginning my deep dive into New Pop, the New Romantics, and every UK artist who embarrassed grad students in the Clinton era. I bought Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum, still beloved by Anglophiles and Britishes mesmerized by Japan’s admittedly mesmerizing Top of the Pops appearance playing “Ghosts,” rightly praised by Simon Reynolds as the most outrageous performance in the show’s history: four mascaraed fops playing their instruments with Keanu-like intensity as if afraid they’d zonk out. Listeners repelled by Sylvian’s voice won’t get far with Japan’s music. A proficient syntheses of Western assimilations of Asian music as opposed to respecting the integrity of Asian music itself, the songs on Japan’s breakthroughs flirt offhandedly and, to my ear, flippantly with totalitarian chic — forget Sylvian, in Sally Jesse Raphael drag, struggling with chopsticks while a photo of Mao glowers from the corner of the Tin Drum sleeve; they’ve got a song called “Rhodesia” for god’s sake, and readers who can parse “Oh, heartaches from Amsterdam/Masturbated over jilted bouquets/Approximation’s counting on a freight line” can speak to my lawyers or a linguistics major.

Still, David Sylvian has recorded a lot of compelling pastoral music, much of which he recorded solo after 1983 as a rhythmically pallid but colorful at a top line level, like a frieze. I jonesed for Bryan Ferry, others for Brian Eno and Jon Hassell collaborations; Sylvian’s music approximates them like Change did Chic’s. David Sylvian was still tops at the local bookstore where I worked at the dawn of the new millennium, specifically Dead Bees on a Cake and his two-disc comp, which is tighter than it has a right to be. I often play him when writing before bed.

1. Orpheus
2. Gentlemen Take Polaroids
3. Adolescent Sex
4. Fall in Love With Me
5. Forbidden Colours
6. Quiet Life
7. Nostalgia
8. Ghosts
9. The Boy with a Gun
10. Blackwater
11. Swing
12. Pulling Punches
13. The Art of Parties
14. Taking the Veil
15. Halloween
16. Methods of Dance
17. Wave
18. Talking Drum
19. Nightporter
20. I Surrender

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