The best thing to call David Sylvian’s Manafon would be atmospheric. The worst would be empty. The truth lies somewhere in between, in hazily sketched semi-songs that drift along wispily, heavy on concept and light on everything else. Few albums have the gumption to attempt this kind of melodic slackness, full of material that hobbles around without any strong regard for how inapproachable it is. Scott Walker did it excellently on 2006’s The Drift, but that attempt was buttressed by creepy atmospherics and a firmly established sense of dread. In that case, a barren environment had time to grow on the listener because the footholds, as insubstantial as they may have been, provided a hook.
Manafon has a far slighter presence, which can be read either as the cause of its failure or an even braver venture into distant sonic territory. Either way, Sylvian seems to have a competent handle on what he’s doing, disassembling song structure until less than the bare basics remain. And a line like “The black sheep boy is leaving home,” from “The Greatest Living Englishman,” feels like a possible nod to Walker, a fellow avant-garde explorer.
It’s tempting to admire the album just for its sense of adventurousness, but the bare offering of Sylvian’s voice, reciting half-asleep poetic verses—sometimes with no instrumental backing, sometimes with a tuneless swipe at a guitar—is resolutely deadening. The effect of the silence here is less an infinite, mysterious aura than just silence, which is more interesting in theory than execution.
There are some amazingly atmospheric moments, like the murky saxophone passage on “The Department of Dead Letters,” which approaches with the steady assurance of a horror-movie slasher, dripping with eerie noise effects and askance string cues, like something bobbing through a swamp. It’s a fascinating interlude, one echoed by small moments that crop up here and there, from the surprising, garbly burst of noise that opens “125 Spheres” to the tinkling low-lit gloom of “Snow White in Appalachia.” But Manafon is far too preoccupied with unadorned stillness to be considered listenable. Its spaces of hollow inaction are far too big, and the concessions it expects of its audience far too large for so little payoff.