David Sylvian, of course, has never done anything to anyone else's schedule. Dead Bees on a Cake is his first solo album since the sublime Secrets of the Beehive, released in October 1987. It is released in March 1999; while the album's been in the can for a while, that's still a gap of well over a decade. The wait, however, has been worth it. One writer has already described Dead Bees as Sylvian's finest album since his 1984 solo debut Brilliant Trees; while that seems unfair to the subsequent albums, it gives some impression of what an impact the album makes. In actual fact, while it may be too early to make such a claim, I'll make it nonetheless: Dead Bees on a Cake is Sylvian's masterpiece.
Needless to say, David hasn't been absent in that time. The late 80s saw the release of his two remarkable collaborations with one-time Can member Holger Czukay; Flux and Mutability and Plight and Premonition remain two of the most arresting "ambient" records of the last decade. There was the Japan pseudo-reformation which produced the greatly underrated Rain Tree Crow. And there was Sylvian-Fripp, a very different beast indeed, a rock group with intelligence which spawned a studio and live album, two international tours and a collection of remixes by The Future Sound of London.
Not busy years, then, but not idle either. And somewhere in there, two very important musical - and personal - moments. In December 1991 Sylvian invited singer and Prince protege Ingrid Chavez and avant garde jazz guitarist Bill Frisell to join him and long-term colleague Ryuichi Sakamoto for a recording session in New York. Sylvian and Chavez were married within three months. Some years later, shortly after the second Sylvian-Fripp tour, fired up by live performance, David embarked on a short solo tour, performing songs from his fifteen-year career; accompanying himself on only acoustic guitar or piano, he found the shows "a massive hurdle to overcome", but ultimately a breakthrough.
Those solo shows spurred Sylvian on to begin work on a new solo album, and thus began three years of frustrating work, carried out in brief bursts between January 1995 and the beginning of 1998. The album grew organically, with Sylvian constantly revising the material. Initial sessions in New York brought David and Ryuichi together with guitarist Marc Ribot, a veteran of NYC's downtown scene and sideman to Tom Waits. From there he went back home to Minneapolis (where he'd moved on marrying Ingrid), worked on the tapes and from here relocated to Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios in the South West of England. The work was continually slow, Sylvian constantly scrapping hours' worth of material. By 1997 Sylvian and Chavez had moved to the Napa Valley in California; at the end of his budget, David returned there to finish off the album in his own studio. In doing so, he undertook the full production of his own work for the first time. The final sessions for the album saw him recording the vocals in total isolation in a small wood cabin in the Napa hills.
A decade, then, between solo albums; the new album three years in the making. From many artists, given half those timescales, one would expect music over-worked to the point of breaking: over-orchestration, over-ornamentation, over-dressing. Yet from the first notes of Dead Bees' opening "I Surrender" to the dying notes of "Darkest Dreaming" (surely the most touching ballad Sylvian has ever written) some seventy minutes later, it's apparent that as an artist Sylvian realises the overriding importance of what isn't there. Far from marred by years of over-working, Dead Bees on a Cake is remarkably sparse. There is nothing there that shouldn't be, yet nothing is absent either. In orchestration terms alone, it is damn-near perfect.
So, how far has David Sylvian come since Secrets of the Beehive? How much has he changed, and how much has his music grown?
The first and most striking difference between all the music on Dead Bees and that on its predecessors is that this is somehow a much earthier album, very obviously warmer. Sylvian has been criticised in the past for his musical and lyrical asceticism. From his first group Japan's ground-breaking Tin Drum album onwards, Sylvian was always looking musically far afield, while looking lyrically deep within. Japan's arch-yet-seductive Orientalisms, Sylvian's later scouring of the European jazz world for extraordinary collaborators, his inspired use of wayward electronica for the perverse setting of "Pop Song", the sense of deep-listening he brought to Flux and Plight (and remember that Czukay, who'd surely know, described David as one of the world's most brilliant soundscapers)... these all demonstrate some search for a sense of musical otherness. Sylvian has admitted being crippled with self-doubt and shyness right through Japan's hey-day; his search for musical exoticisms was surely as much an escape route from his own self as from the dual, if opposite, pitfalls of post-punk Stalinism and fun-but-ultimately-pointless New Romantic glamour into which pop music had fallen at the very time David was beginning to find his musical feet.
And then there were the lyrics. Lyrics which somehow combined a sense of endless spiritual searching with anything from awe to dread, from astonishment to ennui. Sylvian was often accused of pretentiousness by music critics terrified of maturity and creative ambition, the kind of music critics who had, in punk's wake, gladly thrown out the baby of Can or Faust or even of Miles with the bathwater of prog. In an environment of lazy philistinism, David Sylvian provided the discomfort of ... intelligence.
The years between Beehive and Dead Bees have certainly seen Sylvian grow in confidence. He cites his relationship with Ingrid, his new-found role as father and, not least, his move to the USA, as instrumental in this. But that restless search for a spiritual home has continued. It has brought him, ultimately, to the Napa Valley, and into the orbit of guru Shree Maa, one of a series of teachers that has included Germany's Mother Meera and the Indian Mata Amritanandamayi.
Whatever it is that has given him inner strength, it is remarkable to hear the degree to which Sylvian lets himself be centre stage on Dead Bees. The vocals are recorded so intimately that to listen to the album on headphones is almost creepy; David is right there. His singing is less mannered than ever. Once again, while he's worked on vocal tracks over and over, he's used the opportunity to excise rather than ornament. It's a considerable feat of self-control. His singing is at its most bare on the tiny 1'30" ballad "Dobro #1"; "And it rained on my house/All Summer," he sings, to the heartbreaking accompaniment of Bill Frisell's lonely bottleneck guitar. It is one of the album's most beautiful moments.
At the other extreme, though, there's "All of my Mother's Names," on which Sylvian elects not to sing at all. We are in electric jazz territory here. Perhaps with an ear to the Zeitgeist, but most likely through happy accident, Sylvian has produced a homage to the electric Miles Davis 70s canon which, as this piece is written, is finally receiving due props after years in the critical wilderness. That Sylvian can re-create such music so faithfully is a tribute, if nothing else, to how closely he listens.
It also says a great deal about the players with whom he chooses to work, but then, that's been a feature of his solo output, from Brilliant Trees onwards. His collaborators across Dead Bees include: guitarists Frisell and Ribot; Sakamoto; jazz musician Kenny Wheeler, whose flugelhorn has graced Sylvian's work as far back as Gone To Earth; bassist John Giblin; Indian-fusion flautist Deepak Ram; the much-feted tabla player, rhythm programmer and composer Talvin Singh; and, of course, the singer's brother, drummer Steve Jansen. And then there's Ingrid Chavez, whose whispered, breathy vocals bring an entirely new dimension to Sylvian's music-world, some hitherto-unsuspected physicality.
But then, with her Paisley Park inheritance, she may have been responsible for exactly what it is that brings the quality of warmth to Dead Bees: the almost constant presence, for the first time in Sylvian's work, of the blues. It's there in that Frisell dobro solo; it's there in the laconic blues licks that Ribot trails across "Midnight Sun" and "Pollen Path"; it's there in Tommy Barbarella's, Sakamoto's and Sylvian's own Fender Rhodes playing; and, yes, it's there in Chavez's and even, somehow, in Sylvian's own singing.
The sound of the blues - and all its bastard offspring - is now so familiar to us that we rarely really hear it. It has become the soundtrack to TV commercials selling beer or denim jeans, the backbone of swaggering, cocksure white-boy rock, a music which film directors glibly use to denote "authenticity" when their own skills fail them. In truth it is none of these things. The American music journalist Peter Guralnick - the US's great keeper of its folk music's oral histories, from the blues through soul music to country - has spoken of his awe as a white, middle-class teenage college kid hearing Robert Johnson for the first time. Johnson's music, again, has become over-familiar to us all, the crossroads where he made a pact with Satan transformed into the battling ground of superannuated rock guitarists. But Guralnick reminds us that to hear Johnson's fragile, terrified singing and strangled bottleneck guitar for the first time is to hear something as alien as Ligeti, as exotic as gamelan. It is to hear a man who knows just how close the Hell hounds really are. Sylvian takes the overused cliches of the blues and posits them in an environment lightyears from the bloated excesses of blues-rock, Hard Rock Cafe background music. Alongside Wheeler's stratospheric flugelhorn or Sakamoto's edgy electronics, or else underpinning the intimacy of Sylvian's voice, blues lines are heard here more freshly than one ever dared hope. In return, the music has given David Sylvian roots.
And then... almost at the album's end, its penultimate piece, in fact, is its still, small point of calm, "Praise". The piece features a devotional song sung by Shree Maa, something she sings each morning at the end of worship. Sylvian recorded her gentle, feather-light singing one day and has added a discreet layer of processed guitar to it, guitar heavily reminiscent of his one-time collaborator David Torn (Sylvian is plainly not just a good listener, he is also a great student). Even to the most cynical of ears, the song is almost unbearably moving; as wide eyed as a newborn yet as wise as a sage. That Sylvian gives this moment over to another singer, a moment which is perhaps the most important on surely his most important album, is a sure sign of the confidence and maturity he has achieved as an artist.