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  David Sylvain  
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It's with some level of amusement that I find myself typing these words at the top of this review.

This is the shiny, sleek-winged, chrome-wheeled, leather-upholstered, V12, Mk II version of this critique, you see.

The space that these words occupy was, a scant few minutes ago, full of what amounted to an essay on the British class system and the jaundiced views of the common man upon what is loosely referred to as "the arts".

I decided that I was being as poncey (which, for my American readers – and good evening to you both, incidentally – means being unashamedly pretentious) as the album I was revving up to review, so I aborted what I'd written faster than the contents of the "used and still warm" table sells at a knicker-sniffers' jumble sale (the secret is that you have to get in early, or so I'm told).

"And which album might this be to make you evaluate your own level of affectation, Lawton?" I hear you ask.

A spankingly fine question and I'll tell you, young grasshopper and disciple of the Sponge way– it's Manafon (pronounced "Man-ar-von", apparently, for 'tis Welsh), the latest and long-awaited offering from David Sylvian, who is from Kent which is nowhere near Wales...I mean, it is very near Wales from an American or Australian perspective, for instance, but from a Gravesend or Dover point of view, it's really not local at all.

I digress.

As an aside, I have to state here that Sylvian is one of my favourite artists. I own everything he's produced as a solo artist since leaving Japan (the band, not the country), along with almost every collaboration he's been involved in (Robert Fripp, Tweeker, Holger Czukay, Ryuichi Sakamoto, et cetera) and even the collectible three inch CDs he and his label(s) have seen fit to issue.

In short, I'm a fan.

I also have to say that Manafon came five years after his previous album Blemish, which was an unashamedly egocentric, self-pitying, self-indulgent depresso-fest that charted the breakdown of his marriage to Ingrid Chavez. Blemish split the Sylvian fan-base into two fairly distinct (albeit heavily weighted on the negative side) camps. I think it's safe to say that only the most stoic of the die-hard fans embraced Blemish and its bleating, unrelenting, "woe-is-me" theme. For Mrs. Lawton's only son, though, its only redeeming features were its final cut, Fire In The Forest, and the joyous knowledge that I could choose never to play the album again if I so wished.

Strange how themes repeat, n'est pas? (That's your actual French, you know...I'm not charging extra for it...I've thrown that in is that splinter of Latin...I'm fantastically magnanimous.)

Manafon has again cleaved Sylvian's long-suffering and patient fans into two sets – no middle ground here; Sylvian's acolytes are of the opinion that it's either a masterpiece of emotionally naked, "challenging"* minimalism or a dreary excursion through the ramblings of an increasingly lah-dee-dah manic depressive, accompanied by lazy, unimaginative, and pompously lackadaisical improv artists.

(* A pre-release term bandied about by Sylvian's label Samadhisound – it never bodes well when a label uses terms like that before the public get their mitts on the product. It smacks of someone receiving a call from a loved one which starts with the words "Now, before I start, I'm really OK...and the car's airbag system? It works should know that...")

The album's first track was released into the wild by Samadhisound a couple of weeks before the album hit the shelves. It was fairly well received, even by me, but only because it had a bit of unexpected lightness about it. Small Metal Gods, the track in question, is Sylvian's public rejection of his adopted Hindu faith and is, for anyone who is familiar with Sylvian's work, influences and inspirations, quite a surprising development.

From there on in, however, Manafon slides down a depressingly (if you'll excuse the unintentional pun) familiar and slippery slope into a bottomless pit of queasy self-indulgence.

(NB – I am listening now to this album for the second time in an evening. All for you, my children...all for you. This is my one and only selfless act this week and it's a monumental one. After this, the album will do nothing more than gather dust at Lawton Towers.)

Don't get me wrong – I am not one who demands traditional form in his music. I have some music in my collection that is far, far from even the leftmost leftfield material. Being a fan of modern jazz (which therefore means that I actually know what good improv is), Sylvian's cohorts on Manafon fail to impress; I've already used the words "lazy" and "unimaginative" to describe their efforts and find that I can summon up nothing else to describe their apparent lack of motivation here.

If your bag, baby, is one which welcomes being filled with dour, dire, obscure, introspective lyrics, sung in ever-decreasing ranges of notes and splattered like a leper's handshake over badly-mixed, unremarkable, improvised noises (such as the string of a double bass being rattled against the fingerboard over and over again as ill-considered glitches serve only to annoy and irritate), then Manafon is for you.

As I said on the Japan/Sylvian forum just post-release, my first play of the CD through speakers resulted in some real improv Chez the form of gentle "thwack" sounds as the mice were throwing themselves onto the traps. I dare say that if I'd investigated further, I'd have found that the curious swishing noises I also heard were emanating from house flies, nearing the end of their brief lives at the end of autumn, swatting each other in the throes of some hastily arranged, entomological suicide pact.

I sort of knew/guessed/dreaded what Manafon was going to be like and only the completist in me forced me into its purchase.

If you're new to Sylvian, please don't start here (or at the doors of the house of pain known as Blemish). As a taster, listen to his 1999 retrospective Everything & Nothing and then explore his back-catalogue using that as a springboard.

Sylvian's music has brought me much joy over the years – a joy I intend to leave intact by never again playing Manafon.

To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, I do find myself whistling the artwork, though.

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