Orpheus, by David Sylvian

One of my favorite albums of the 1980s is David Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive. Released in 1987, it features beautiful and lush orchestral arrangements by Ryuichi Sakamoto and great contributions by Danny Thompson on upright bass, Mark Isham on flugelhorn and trumpet and Steve Jensen on drums. This album is unique in Sylvian’s music catalog in its lyrical content, the character of his voice, the acoustic instrumentation and above all the melodies. 1987 was a landmark year for beautiful, quiet and melancholic music. The same year Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden was recorded. Both albums are among my all-time great albums.

David Sylvian went through a period of soul searching in the mid 1980s after leaving the band Japan and releasing a few solo albums. Sylvian says of that period: “This search led me to look into Gurdjieff’s teachings, Sufism, Gnostic Christianity, and Buddhism. At some point or another all of the above held me captivated for a period of time. My faith was restored to me stronger than ever before without the basis of a given set of parameters, without dogma. I was free. I felt free to explore whichever avenue of interest cast its spell and, more importantly, produced results. For me, Buddhism held the most persuasive deck of cards. This was the source of knowledge that informed my practice for a number of years without the benefit of a personal teacher.”

The recording of Secrets of the Beehive which took place n 1987 are sandwiched between sessions Sylvian made with ex-Can bassist Holger Czukay. The first of  these was a chance recording that happened spontaneously when Sylvian visited Czukay following an invitation to contribute vocals for one track. Sylvian started playing various instruments in the studio while unbeknownst to him Czukay was rolling the tape. The experience left a mark on Sylvian, as he later said: “It was quite new for me to work in that manner. You go into the studio with no preconceived ideas and you just improvise material onto tape and then work with that, develop that composition and put some kind of shape to it at a later stage.” These sessions resulted in two long ambient tracks named Plight and Premonition, released 2 years later. The loose recording method with Czukay may have influenced Sylvian when he recorded the songs for Secrets of the Beehive the following year. While the songs have a well-defined structure, the arrangements have that free feeling about them, as if the guest musicians had been given license to influence the arrangement rather than play set parts.

Orpheus is one of the songs that came out of that period, and it sounds like the mythological musician and poet has been an inspiration to Sylvian.

The song is a 12/8 slow rock ballad accented by Steve Jensen, Sylvian’s brother, playing a minimal drum kit, and Danny Thompson on upright bass. The string orchestration by Brian Gascoigne and piano accompaniment by Sakamoto do wonders behind the deep vocals. The part I love the most is the break in the middle of the song, where it sounds as if the song just ends, but it starts again with a flugelhorn solo by Mark Isham and riffs on slide guitar by Phil Palmer.

Standing firm on this stony ground

The wind blows hard

Pulls these clothes around

I harbour all the same worries as most

The temptations to leave or to give up the ghost

I wrestle with an outlook on life

That shifts between darkness and shadowy light

I struggle with words for fear that they’ll hear

But Orpheus sleeps on his back still dead to the world


Sunlight falls, my wings open wide

There’s a beauty here I cannot deny

And bottles that tumble and crash on the stairs

Are just so many people I knew never cared

Down below on the wreck of the ship

Are a stronghold of pleasures I couldn’t regret

But the baggage is swallowed up by the tide

As Orpheus keeps to his promise and stays by my side


Tell me, I’ve still a lot to learn

Understand, these fires never stop

Believe me, when this joke is tired of laughing

I will hear the promise of my Orpheus sing


Sleepers sleep as we row the boat

Just you the weather and I gave up hope

But all of the hurdles that fell in our laps

Were fuel for the fire and straw for our backs

Still the voices have stories to tell

Of the power struggles in heaven and hell

But we feel secure against such mighty dreams

As Orpheus sings of the promise tomorrow may bring


Tell me, I’ve still a lot to learn

Understand, these fires never stop

Please believe, when this joke is tired of laughing

I will hear the promise of my Orpheus sing

Categories: Songs

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7 replies »

  1. 1. sakamoto wasn’t responsible for the string arrangement on orpheus.
    2. both albums with czukay were recorded post beehive.

    • Dear WTF. First let me congratulate you for your wonderful, witty choice of acronym. I stand corrected on the orchestral arrangements for Orpheus. Indeed they were created by Brian Gascoigne. Thanks for pointing this out, article corrected. However the albums with Czukay were not both recorded after Secrets of the Beehive, but rather RELEASED after it. Plight & Premonition was recorded during the winter of 1986 and early in 1987. It was not released until March 1988 because of legal copyright problems. Secrets of the Beehive was recorded later in 1987 and released in November of that year. Flux and Mutability was recorded in 1988 and released in September 1989. http://www.davidsylvian.net/ is a good reference for these details.

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