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Brilliant Trees

Brilliant Trees
July 16, 2020 04:42PM
Music takes us backwards as much as, if not more than, it moves us forward. Every summer, for me, is the summer of David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees, released in June 1984. Although I listen to this album frequently, it assumes especial resonance during the hottest season of the year. Undoubtedly, I associate summertime with the long breaks between the end of one public school year and the beginning of another--though I was already in college, without a care in the world, by then--breaks that were never, to my way of thinking, long enough. Those were months of staying up all night watching old movies on cable, vacationing (I picked up my vinyl copy of Trees at a now-long-defunct Myrtle Beach record shop), dating, painting, and feeling full of possibilities. Perhaps, like Sylvian, I’m merely “drowning in my nostalgia” when I return, time and again, to this disc. In the lazy dilettantish days of that distant summer, I didn’t realize how important his first solo album would become to me; I was merely happy at the artist’s return after the breakup of his underrated band Japan at the end of 1982.

The then-heavily-made-up Sylvian had been regularly ridiculed by reviewers as a Bowie/Ferry clone during Japan’s existence, but those critics quickly changed their tune when he went solo. Carole Linfield, writing in Sounds, declared that Sylvian “[has] left art school, gone through the grey and come out in a spectrum of pastel shades that entrance and enthrall,” while Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland proclaimed Brilliant Trees “a masterpiece.” What a shame that Trouser Press had folded shortly before this record’s release!

For this endless summer of an album, Sylvian assembled a cast of sidemen worthy of the players on a Brian Eno disc. These included two of his former bandmates (Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen), Sylvian’s frequent collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto, Can’s Holger Czukay, Pentangle’s Danny Thompson, flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler, and two great trumpeters: Mark Isham, and Eno’s own collaborator, Jon Hassell. Brilliant Trees, which contains only seven songs, begins with the funky, Asian-tinged “Pulling Punches,” then settles into jazzy ambience for the remainder of Side One, transforming acoustic and electronic instrumentation into sonic gold. Hassell, who co-composed two tracks, dominates the second side with his processed brasswork, especially on the title tune, which heralds, for Sylvian, the dawning of a New (Fourth) World. (The last half of this particular composition is spellbinding.) Lyrically, the singer references such writers as Jean Cocteau, Yukio Mishima, Raymond Radiguet, and Jean-Paul Sartre, but thematically I’m always reminded of Herman Hesse, as well as Christopher Isherwood at his most mystical.

Brilliant Trees is one of my two favorite albums, the other disc being David Bowie’s Station to Station. It’s curious that both records involve the Kabbalah to at least some extent, though Sylvian has stated that—paradoxically--he “hadn’t come across the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life” before he wrote the album, “but I was on the brink of discovering it.” What a brink of discovery Brilliant Trees is! It’s a young man’s album, full of possibilities, that is mature beyond its years. I’ve aged, lord knows, but this spectrum-of-pastel-shaded masterpiece hasn’t.
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