David Batt (no relation to Mike!) is better known as the artist David Sylvian. I use that description deliberately as besides being a singer, song writer, musician and producer, Sylvian has had books of his lyrics and poetry published, directed videos, curated festivals, is an accomplished photographer and was once voted the world's most beautiful man!! So if you only know him as the slightly effeminate lead singer of Japan then you've some catching up to do!
I first came across him as the lead singer of the aforementioned Japan in early 1980, when I bought their break through album "Quiet Life". It was the early 1980's and fitted the new romantic sounds but had "something else" too, which in part is down to sounds created by both the keyboards of Richard Barbieri and Mick Karn on fretless basses and saxophones. Guitarist Rob Dean also used an Ebow (an electronic bow) as part of the guitar sounds. The other difference is best summed up by the final 7 minute plus track "The Other side of Life'. This was orchestrated and referenced both early Roxy Music and "Berlin era" Bowie in style and sound. While other "New Romantics" would cite both as influences this was more than that.
It was the next album "Gentlemen take Polaroids" that sealed the deal however. While there were echos of the previous album this was a slightly more austere sound reflected in the black and red used on the album cover with a very heavily made up David Sylvian doing his best Steve Strange look. The lead single was a the title track and while it charted, it wasn't a big hit. The best song on the album, maybe's Japan high point for me was Nightporter. It's nearly 7 minutes of Satie-esque piano led melancholy, which to me brings images of slow dances in empty ball rooms and videos in black and white of steam engines in European railway stations. Oh and Dirk Bogarde.
The last studio album Japan produced was "Tin Drum", which had a heavy Chinese influence and a lot more keyboard textures and atmosphere partly because Rob Dean had left but in some ways that sound with little guitar was why he left. The album came complete with Sylvian in Chinese styled clothes on the cover eating rice with chopsticks, with poster of Chairman Mao behind him. The first single was a slightly funky dance track, called "The Art of Parties", which had a brass section and three female backing singers. I loved it and still do. The album version is, however, completely different in sound, with no brass or backing singers and is much more in keeping with the feel and sounds of the rest of the album. The album is best known for it's hit single "Ghosts" which reached the top 10. It's another slice of melancholy, albeit with keyboards and marimbas rather than pianos and oboes as in Nightporter.
After that Japan split, in part allegedly due to Sylvian's relationship with Yuka Fuji, who was Mick Karn's ex girlfriend. Although the members generally kept in touch and continued to work together, helped no doubt by Japan's drummer being Sylvian's brother, Steve Jansen. (both took stage names from the singer and guitarist of the New York Dolls and early influence)
Sylvian's first act post Japan, was to record with Ryuichi Sakamoto, from the Yellow Magic Orchestra, who had worked with Japan on Gentlemen track Poloriods. After a double A sided single, they recorded "Forbidden Colours" for the soundtrack of the film "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence" which became a top 20 single and remains a piece of music for which he is widely admired.
Sylvian then set about recording his first solo album "Brilliant Trees" He involved his brother on drumsand Richard Barbieri, on keyboards, along with Sakamoto, Holger Czukay from Can, (who is credited among others things as playing dictaphone) Danny Thompson (from Pentangle) on bass, trumpeters Mark Isham and Jon Hassell and Phil Palmer played some guitar. Sylvian played, guitar, piano, synthesiser and "tapes". To me it's a great album, a step away from the music of Japan but with some stylistic similarities. The first single "Red Guitar" could have been a Japan song in structure but without Mick Karn's fretless bass moves towardswhat Sylvian's "sound" would be for the next 2/3 albums. The album finishes with the title track, which is over 8 minutes of reflection and doubt in two parts. The first, a gentle song with Sylvian singing to an unknown deity/love. The second part is a slow rhythmic instrumental with the "music" of the first part underpinned by gentle percussion, (sticks, hand claps, and oriental drums). It very sparse and quite beautiful. At the ends it just fades away.
One of the quirks of David Sylvian's recording career is that every so often he goes off into a "side projects" that emerge with little fanfare but are important none the less. The first of these happens now when the next release is an instrumental album of various projects that was a limited edition release on cassette! It sort of signposts in part where his thoughts were progressing and reflects his interest in jazz, encouraged by his partner Yuka Fuzii.
The next solo album proper "Gone to Earth" sees him working with two icons of the 70's, Robert Fripp guitarist with King Crimson and Bill Nelson, best known from his time as singer and guitarist with BeBop DeLuxe. Hindsight shows this as a key sign of the direction Sylvian's career would follow as the 17 tracks form effectively two albums, one with vocals and one totally instrumental. It's a gentle album almost ambient in parts and when released was a double album although on CD the record company just dropped 4 tracks!
Two years later came, what I feel is Sylvian's best solo album, "Secrets of the Beehive". Released in 1987, it's a another change with more acoustic instruments, orchestral arrangements and a brooding, desolate feel. Lyrics include references to domestic abuse, lots of doubts over love/life and even the first single "Let the happiness in..." is a sad song but does allude to the writer's hope, hence the title. It's the overall feel of the album as a whole that makes it work for me.
In the late eighties, Sylvian and Mick Karn made up and thus his next release was effectively a new Japan album with the four members recording together as a unit. The album started as them wanting to make a pop album, but the resultant release is far more of a sign as to how far away they had all moved from that market. According to Mick Karn, while they all worked well for about two weeks the old disagreements soon resurfaced and it became clear that this was a "one off" and the record company decided that the only way to get it profile was to call it a Japan album. Sylvian was, however, completely against this, despite the others seeing no problem and thus when it was released the band name was "Rain TreeCrow". The album cover does however have the four band members surnames on it, just to be clear who makes up the band! It's a good not great album but with no real melodies that you find yourself humming days after you've listened to it! But that's not always a bad thing.
After the relative failure of the Japan reunion, Sylvian reconnected with Robert Fripp after initially being offered the singers role in King Crimson (which he declined), they recorded an album "The First day" together which they then toured and also released a live album too. The duo's overall sound was more muscular which reflects Fripp's musical background.
The next major release didn't then come until 1999, with another solo album, Dead Bees on a Cake. It's another long album with 14 tracks (expanded to 17 on a subsequent vinyl rerelease) and is a strong indication of a future directions of travel. It's dense in parts, weird in other parts and beautiful on occasions. It was sadly, the start of my falling out of love with his music. The last track "Darkest Dreaming" is however, one his best ever songs.
The next two solo albums were "Blemish and "Manafon". Both see him experimenting with the form of song and in an interview he references Stockhausen. Both seem to move away from melody as a concept! I've listened to both as best I could but they're not for me. Having started his own record label, Samadhi Sound and built a recording studio in New Hampshire, he has become more of the artist than musician, which he is perfectly entitled to do.
So, finally, we come to the song of the title "Beautiful country". As last I fear you cry. In 2011 he started working with Joan Wasser, who is better known as "Joan as Police Woman. She was full of hope about this collaboration and they were planning a 10 track album, but in early 2012 Sylvian sustained a lower back injury, that firstly postponed a planned tour and also seems to have ended the proposed album. But in 2017 Sylvian started a Soundcloud account and one of the first postings was this song. Sylvian said "This song was recorded back in late 2011/2012. It’s a love song of sorts, dedicated to my adopted country, the birthplace of my children, an ode to the many travels taken through most States of North America, and to Joan with whom I recorded the piece. I attempted to capture something of the spirit of the best of country and western pop, the kind peddled by the likes of Glen Campbell or Willie Nelson (I’m sure they could’ve done a better job with it than I. Well, Willie, it’s not too late). It was recorded with the core trio of Joan Wasser, Parker Kindred, and Fred Cash. For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve been unable to release the track, so I offer this rough mix if for no other reason than my daughters would love for me to share it with you.’
To me it's a real return to the music he's made that made me a fan and shows a frustrating glimpse of what he is still capable of recording. As to the future who knows (there's an Instagram account in his name that posts photos with obscure comments) but whatever happens his music remains a large part of my music library, both physical (vinyl and CD) and digitally. The right song at the right time can still make everything seem alright.