Peter Kearns continues the series in which he examines music released This Week Across Time (TWAT) with a red-eye focused on David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees (1984).
IN 2010, I sat in the back of a now defunct Christchurch coffee shop with my friend Andrew discussing the whys and wherefores of music after not having had a chat in a number of years. Having been to some extent an exponent of the 1980s alternative, he was now discovering a taste for the likes of Steely Dan. On the other hand, I was now moving in the opposite direction: having grown up with the Dan and other miscellaneous flash pop, I was now realising a taste for the likes of (at least the best bits of) The Cure and The Ramones, and others of their ilk.
This all seemed like a corner, a coming of age (ugh). “What’s that about!?” I exclaimed. Andrew then said something that made me think. Like nothing, he slipped out the phrase, “Music is a feeling.” I pondered this afterwards, and have done several times since. Music is a feeling. Hmm. Having always been a natural critic before I was ever insane enough to write something down, these four words stopped me in my tracks and made me mull over the reasons why people like music, why some music is deemed better or more important and just why it doggone has the effect on you that it can. I guess I always knew but this crystalised it for me. Technically, there is music that is superior to other music. But that fact has nothing to do with an individual’s appreciation. It’s just a feeling, and it either makes you feel good or it don’t.
Flash back to sometime in late 1984. Me and some band cronies were relaxing after a gig, sitting in the lounge of a mate whose couch had borne the imprint of many relaxing musicians after many gigs for many years. Back then the drug of choice amongst the young was mainly cannabis. This night the substance was not unusually present, though it rarely infested the lungs and brain cells of this youngster. However, on this occasion I had partaken, and as normal under these conditions, music was also wafting. I wasn’t paying much attention, but whatever it was sounded pretty interesting. Suddenly, out of nowhere in the middle of a comfortably strident base of kick drum, snareless snare, acoustic guitar and fretless bass harmonics that was already cooking, this repetitive jazz-inflected piano figure appeared that jolted me alert, like a time machine thrusting me from mid-‘80s New Zealand smack-bang into ‘50s Bleecker St. The phrase itself was only one bar long – four piano chords that haphazardly decorated three basic underlying chords. That was it. Four repeats a few times in the song, and it always left you wanting more. The pianist was Ryuichi Sakamoto, the song was ‘Red Guitar’, and the album, released in the first week of July 1984, was David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees.
Other tracks such as the opener, ‘Pulling Punches’, proceeded to blow my mind. That was of course after the album had finished and was replayed so I could hear it from the beginning. That was the beauty of music consumption back then. Out in the world you could enter an album at some mid-point, and unless you bought a copy you’d just hear it around, never being sure of the landscape of it. It was just a cool place you’d get to visit sometimes that would become part of the fabric of your everyday life. There was an aspect of the music being out of reach and some planning was involved in acquiring it. Some albums like that I chose not to purchase. Brilliant Trees was one of them. I didn’t even know the song titles. I didn’t want to spoil it, didn’t want to become too familiar, didn’t want to understand it. I just wanted it to wash over me unexpectedly when I was out and about doing my thing. And when it did, it felt great. Music is a feeling.
As I recall, the album had no hits here in New Zealand. I prefer to remember it like that anyway. But in the UK ‘Red Guitar’ reached number 17. Gone are the days when such subtle but technical music could dent the top 20. I’m not talking about feelings now, you understand, or musicality for that matter. I’m talking about the impression that music can suggest, and that the listener can willingly accept when it wasn’t already occurring to him, thus the above-mentioned New York jazz image. Sylvian has always been so adept at this. It was as if he’d superimposed a distinct visual image onto the music. (He was indeed exhibiting photography at the time.)
I finally came into possession of Brilliant Trees just a few years ago. I knew I’d loved it but couldn’t remember a note of it. I played it and had the joy of discovery all over again. ‘Red Guitar’ came on. I thought “Oh yeah, I remember that, that was a great groove. Red Guitar. So that’s what it’s called.” Then the piano figure I’d completely forgotten existed across 25 years appeared and twisted my brain yet again. Straight this time. So it hadn’t been the drugs. It was the feeling. PETER KEARNS