David Sylvian -1986

There’s something peculiar about working or experiencing art with black and white colors. Gone are visual signifiers and reference points that you can use to inform your emotions. By restricting your colors to two poles, the audience has to engage with your work by basing it on something else. The ideas of texture, dynamism, contrast, and transition become much more important to crafting a holistic view. There’s something interesting about that gorgeous album cover adorning David Sylvian’s Secret of the Beehive. Symbolically, it shows a turning point in his musical career. By removing certain electronic excesses and working with a smaller palette he, quite possibly, created a truly timeless masterpiece.

In 1987, after nearly running himself ragged from touring in support of Gone to Earth, David sought some solace. Not quite ready to go back and record a full album, he went back home and winding down. At home the more time he spent just giving in to the minor luxuries of life, the more he started to find reflective time enjoying just playing alongside his piano. In a matter of two weeks, he just felt all sorts of songs streaming into his consciousness. Remembrances of days gone by, heartening visions of locations that brought joy to him, and sweeping feelings of familiarity with the quaint melodies he was writing him was moving him.

Secrets of the Beehive album cover.

No longer hiding behind effects or gadgetry, his baritone voice (at times) was all that would move all those songs along. To him it felt like a gift coming from some known unknown place. Sensing how out of time these songs were, he started to realize that they would best be served by creating accompaniment that would respect the truly personal feelings he was sharing with the world. Devoting himself, or what little money 4AD could provide to record, he entreated his friend Ryuichi Sakamoto to help craft something different for this record.

David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto

Together with Ryuichi in Le Val, France, somehow, they tapped into some unheard of progressive Neo-Romantic composition methods few knew they had. In turn Ryuichi helped craft much of the piano and string arrangements that could flow alongside David’s much more elegant ruminations. Other musicians like Danny Thompson from the Pentangle on bass, and Mark Isham on horns/reeds, would inflect a modern marriage of past cosmopolitan folk music much like Nick Drake and Scott Walker would, but now with sonic textures that allowed the edges to knowingly appear slightly aliased. The gloaming piano ballad of “September” so wonderfully spare and instantly inviting, giving you an in to mercurial orchestration that will follow.

“Maria” starts it all off. Set over hovering strings, little glints of oscillation and sonorous baritone intertwine with this sound that evokes transient memories and dreams. So few layers to latch on to, but all of them making some kind of presence uniquely felt. When those layers start to inform your complete picture, as they will in “Orpheus”, something different and engaging demands your acquaintance. Pining for some illumination from all the pain he feels, why light always gets met by darkness, the music (all strings, acoustic and piano based) enveloping his turmoil opens up and presents the realization that such back and forth is drawing a picture. This is the sketching of life and a beauty, once completed, that we can’t deny. The more we hear the dark and light sounds dance around his searching lyrics, the beauty of the reveal is that. For all the pining we have, there’s something moving and shifting for a reason, and that something is essential to live for.

Somehow as you go on further in the album, you’ll value more those empty spaces. A lot of time like on “Devil’s Own” they’ll come where you expect them, sometimes in songs like “Let the Happiness In” they’ll be short and where you least expect them, but those contracting spaces will present themselves to you. When they do, and they will, won’t they allow you to fill them with something and remove things you might not need? There’s a trick to working in black and white, something someone is discovering shortly…

Listen to Secrets of the Beehive at Grooveshark.

Bonus track, a positively beatific solo version of “Let the Happiness In” performed in Italy just a few years later…