Nine Horses: Snow Borne Sorrow

Honestly now, of those whose 1981 listening regimen included Japan's Tin Drum, how many would have predicted David Sylvian would still be releasing relevant music in 2005? Precious few, I imagine, but here now is Snow Borne Sorrow finding Sylvian issuing quality material of purpose and integrity, much like his recent Blemish and The Good Son vs. The Only Daughter. Of course, it's not a solo but a trio release by Sylvian, drummer (and one-time Japan member) Steve Jansen, and electronic composer Burnt Friedman under the Nine Horses moniker, though one naturally hears it, at least initially, as a Sylvian release for two reasons: first of all, his unique croon immediately stamps any context with his distinctive fingerprint and, secondly, his propensity for featuring ever-shifting casts of musicians on his recordings means that the musical surroundings convey less of that immediate signature than does his voice.

Snow Borne Sorrow is a remarkable through-composed collection distinguished by strong songwriting and expansively rich arrangements, the main players augmented by Norwegian trumpeter and Supersilent member Arve Henriksen, Swedish singer Stina Nordenstam, and Ryuichi Sakamoto on piano. “Wonderful World” is a splendidly dramatic opener, an orchestral waltz animated by strings, vibes, and the muffled accent of a timpani drum, with Sylvian's deep voice contrasting with Nordenstam's girlish tone. The album's ponderous mood is immediately set by lyrics both sardonic and humanistic (“It's a wonderful world / As the buildings fall down / And you quicken your step /'Til your feet leave the ground / And you're soaring above / All the sorrow above / And you're falling in love / With those you don't know”). The even more arresting “Darkest Birds” alternates languid verses with aggressively urgent choruses and is further distinguished by Henriksen's trumpet cries (a treasure throughout). In addition, a languid groove and saxophone flutter cast a potent spell in “The Banality of Evil,” as does the sensual vocal grouping on the lulling “Atom and Cell.” “A History of Holes,” an especially captivating soul-jazz excursion whose woodwinds-heavy arrangement alone justifies the album purchase, showcases lush vocalizing that's irresistible.

Some listeners might bemoan the virtual absence of Sylvian's outré sensibility on this recording compared to others in his discography; certainly the spiky angularity a Derek Bailey brings to a session, for example, isn't here as it is on Blemish (though cold, industrial passages of glitchy ripples and tears do merge with warmer trumpet textures in the title track). Other listeners may rejoice over Snow Borne Sorrow's accessibility. Regardless, it bears repeating that the album's not a Sylvian solo outing but a group project, and a deeply rewarding one at that.

November 2005