In 1987, amidst bombastic late 1980s pop songs, a number of introspective and moody albums that applied lush acoustic instrumentation were recorded by some of my favorite artists. Marianne Faithfull worked with producer Hal Willner and a number of stellar musicians to release the album Strange Weather, a great collection of cover songs, with the title song composed by Tom Waits. Talk Talk started to record their seminal album Spirit of Eden, painstakingly creating an extraordinary sonic collage in the studio following months of recordings. And also in 1987, David Sylvian recorded and released his third solo album, the melancholic, acoustic and atmospheric Secrets of the Beehive, my favorite in his excellent catalog of 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 said 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 spiritual journey Sylvian took during that period is evident in the lyrics to Secrets of the Beehive, with various references to religious symbols. In an interview years later, Sylvian said: “The Christian symbols no longer have any hold on me. The point of using them in this context is a short hand of sorts. I don’t believe in a devil. I do believe in the force of evil, I believe in the force of love. Heaven and hell are here and now defined by psychological states. We know what hell feels like. We experience on occasion our descent into it. Most of us are fortunate enough to re-emerge. Likewise we also experience heaven by degrees and intensity.”
The recording of Secrets of the Beehive which took place in 1987 is 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 a track Czukay was working on. 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 two 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.
Discussing the album in an interview, Sylvian said: “That’s an odd record, really, because just prior to that I’d been on a really extensive press tour for Gone to Earth which was just taking me all over the globe, and I was quite exhausted talking about the work and didn’t feel quite ready to sit down and embrace writing at that moment in time. But it just started coming to me, as soon as I had settled back into my home the material started arriving, and in a period of about two weeks everything was written. And it wasn’t something that I’d planned on doing.” In another interview he added more details: “I hadn’t conceived the album in its entirety, as an entity in itself, it’s just a batch of songs that sort of arrived and fell in my lap. It felt like a gift. I recognized that there was a beauty to the material and it already felt to me like something I had heard before. Every time I returned to one of the pieces it felt so familiar, like this has been around a very long time. So it was very much a gift to me in that respect.”
The short opening song that serves as an introduction to the album’s prevailing mood is September, with Sylvian on piano and a simple string arrangement by Ryuichi Sakamoto. You immediately notice the sparse instrumentation, the slow pace of the vocals and the inward-looking mood. These characteristics will continue throughout the album.
The Boy with the Gun follows, introduced by some of the guest musicians Sylvian asked to accompany him in the studio. Danny Thompson on bass, David Torn on electric guitar and Danny Cummings on small percussion. Discussing his relationship with the musicians he works with, Sylvian elaborated: “With the majority of people I collaborate with, there is a mutual respect of some kind established. There is very rarely a problem involved with creating the music. When I’m arranging a piece of music, it’s the composition or arrangement itself that is crying out for a certain voice. So, it’s a matter of inviting a musician in to see if they can make that link. More often than not, there is a need for a dialogue of some kind to establish the common ground. The common ground already exists in my mind and I’m hoping that the musician coming in to work with me can recognize that. I have to say that nine times out of ten it works extremely well.”
Perhaps the best known song from the album is Orpheus, released as a single in May 1988. The string arrangement by Brian Gascoigne works wonders here, complementing Sylvian’s vocals with counter melodies and harmonies. I love the break in the middle of the song, where it sounds as if it reached the end, but it starts again with a flugelhorn solo by Mark Isham and riffs on slide guitar by Phil Palmer. Sylvian has a talent of writing lyrics with great imagery, and this song is a fine example:
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
The album was produced by Steve Nye, a long-time collaborator of Sylvian, who worked with him as producer of the band Japan in the early 1980s and on Sylvian’s first solo albums Brilliant Trees and Gone to Earth. Earlier in his career Steve Nye was sound engineer on Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, later producing albums for Brian Ferry, The Cure, Clannad and XTC among others.
The beautiful album cover was designed by 23 Envelope, the moniker for the partnership between graphic designer Vaughan Oliver and photographer/filmmaker Nigel Grierson. Between 1983 and 1988 they were the house design team for the British label 4AD, creating sleeve designs for bands such as Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil.
Discussing his process of songwriting, Sylvian commented: “In order to achieve a successful fusion of words and music, both need to be written at about the same time. I don’t like the idea of sitting down cold to write lyrics. Music needs to be there to create a sort of landscape in my mind. Every song on the record was written in one seating. Music and lyrics always came together.” However different patterns developed during the writing and recording of Secrets of the Beehive: “As I was writing the materials I realized that the emphasis for the first time was on the lyrical content and I thought the melodies of the pieces are quite strong, so I thought I would orchestrate the pieces from their original starting point which was either the acoustic piano or acoustic guitar. I am relying on the lyrics to convey a lot of the atmosphere that I used to put into the music. The arrangements are very sparse and that was intentional because I wanted the emphasis to be shifted to the lyrics.”
The sparse instrumentation Sylvian talks about continues in The Devil’s Own, for which Sakamoto arranged a gorgeous woodwind section accompaniment.
The ticking of the clock
Inexorably goes on
The howling of the stray souls of heaven
The treasures of the cove
Where the traders stored their gold
Echo voices still dead to the world
One of my favorite songs on the album is When Poets Dreamed of Angels, where the guest musicians get to stretch out and improvise in what was an unplanned moment in the studio. Sylvian: “The song section of this piece was well mapped out in advance so there wasn’t too much freedom as far as that. The end section, when the percussion enters, was only meant to last originally for about 30 seconds and fade pretty quickly. But the guitar solo was so good that we couldn’t fade it out and we added more percussion and trumpet to it.” Throughout the song we can hear the great acoustic guitar work of Phil Palmer and the tasteful percussion accents by Danny Cummings. Talking about how he works with musicians in the studio Sylvian added: “I allow them quite a lot of freedom. The songs are normally completed when I get to the studio but I leave the arrangements quite open. I give a general direction for a piece and then let the musicians interpret that in their own way. People who come into the studio influence the work themselves. I am an admirer of their past work, and they have a positive influence on the work just by being there with me.”
Listening to the songs that I featured in this article, you may have reached the logical conclusion that they put you in a specific mood, and maybe best listened to in one seating as a complete experience. When asked about the musical mood of the album, Sylvian said: “I think it balances the lyrics because there is a certain amount of tension and darkness in the lyrics and the music balances it out by being mellower. I am never a person that sits back and feels very comfortable with life. If I’m happy there is always an undertone of doubt, nervousness and sadness.”
One last piece of music from the album, the first single to be released from it in September 1987, Let the Happiness In. This is perhaps the most hopeful tune on this otherwise solemn album. Mark Isham plays a great muted trumpet solo here, and we are treated to two arrangements, one for strings by Brian Gascoigne and another for brass by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Sylvian sings at a lower key than his previous albums, an intentional shift: “I wanted to get the whole feeling of the music very intimate and therefore I wanted to sing very close to the mic, in a lower register for me.”
Oh, let the happiness in
Listen to the waves against the rocks
I don’t know where they’ve been
I’m waiting for the skies to open up
And let the happiness in
Sylvian commented in an interview about the impact of his songs on listeners: “My music causes the listener to look within themselves in some way, an introspection on the part of the listener. I think that’s why a lot of people feel uncomfortable with my work. I’d like to think that it would force them to look within themselves and ask themselves questions and come up with answers for themselves. For me that is the most useful aspect my work could possibly have.” Secrets of the Beehive certainly has that effect on many followers of his music, including myself. To close, here is one last insight from Sylvian that best sums up the effect of that album: “I think music can potentially give a listener a safe haven to open up to themselves. Music can be a healing place. It’s not a physical space, but music can sometimes envelop listeners and allow them to delve into emotions they don’t feel safe to explore elsewhere. In the embrace of music, they can open up, breathe deeply into these emotions, be they celebratory, sad or melancholy, and just ride with them. I think music has such a potent, healing capacity.”
The following sources were used during the writing of this article:
Articles and Interviews, from www.davidsylvian.net
Interviews from www.davidsylvian.com
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