ORPHEUS — SHIFTING BETWEEN DARKNESS AND SHADOWY LIGHT. Many of David Sylvian’s solo works in the 1980s dropped names, and showed his association with various philosophers, writers, film makers, in fact an eclectic array of radical free thinkers.
On Secrets of the Beehive, Greek mythology was introduced into the mix. The song Orpheus showed Sylvian’s audience just how far he had refined his song writing style. Beautifully arranged and performed, it saw Sylvian at the top of his game.
The mythical Orpheus was a great poet and musician, his music having the ability to charm wild animals and even make inanimate objects move. The myth famously influenced the 1949 film Orphée by Jean Cocteau, who as is detailed in the new biography of Sylvian “On the Periphery” (www.sylvianbiography.com) was an enduring source of inspiration for Sylvian through his early solo years.
Cocteau adapted the Greek myth, and produced a film that focused on themes such as the contrast between reality and illusion, and between dreams and the waking world. The film was also pre-occupied with the concepts of death and immortality, and commented on the importance of commitment and love in a relationship.
The lyrics of the track showed only a loose association to either the myth or the film. Perhaps the key characteristics of Orpheus the man, however, did have some relevance to the nature of the composition: a symbol of ambivalence, with a magic aura — and an ability to seduce all creatures organic and inorganic with his voice and his harp — but also a flawed character, bound to human weakness and an all-consuming ego, therefore condemned to be imperfect.
In the song, Orpheus was an ever-present muse, who started out asleep, but stepped up to the plate as a support for the narrator as he struggled with personal questions and insecurities. He moved from sleeping on his back “still dead to the world”, to keeping to his promise and “staying by his side”, and finally singing of the promise tomorrow could bring.
Orpheus was almost an analogy for a strength that Sylvian needed in order to drive on and continue his personal, musical, and spiritual journey. Orpheus was representative of an inner light, a beacon that if followed would ultimately lead to fulfilment of true potential. Without the support of the metaphorical Orpheus, Sylvian displayed stifling insecurity. While “Orpheus slept on his back still dead to the world”, Sylvian spoke thus, displaying an awkwardness, an inner fear, a shyness, and a lack of purpose.
I harbour all the same worries as most / The temptations to leave or to give up the ghost / I wrestle with an outlook on life / That shifts between darkness and shadowy light / I struggle with words for fear that they’ll hear.
As “Orpheus kept to his promise and stays by my side” Sylvian blossomed somewhat and adopted a more optimistic demeanour. Now there was a raising of the eyes, troubles and painful memories and associations while acknowledged seemed to be falling away.
Sunlight falls, my wings open wide / There’s a beauty here I cannot deny / And bottles that tumble and crash on the stairs / Are just so many people I knew never cared / Down below on the wreck of a ship / Are a stronghold of pleasures I couldn’t regret / But the baggage is swallowed up by the tide
Finally, as “Orpheus sang of the promise tomorrow may bring,” Sylvian imparted a confidence, making positives out of negatives, feeling robust against the vagaries of the world. Life’s slings and arrows made for a stronger person in the end. There was also a more direct statement that while the traditional Christian concepts of heaven and hell and the preaching that accompanied them still existed, Sylvian (in the company of his muse Orpheus) could find the security of a more fulfilling faith that allowed a detachment from — and a less involved view of — past faith-based associations.
But all of the hurdles that fell in our laps / Were fuel for the fire and straw for our backs / Still the voices have stories to tell / Of the power struggles in heaven and hell / But we feel secure against such mighty dreams
There was a hopefulness in this song that stood out on the album. Here was a narrator still riddled with self-questioning and doubt, but finding support and an inner strength to plough on and achieve greater heights. Despite the fact that the trials and tribulations were ongoing and were unlikely ever to be over, there was a well of strength that had been recognised and located that would sustain future efforts. The narrator suggested a resilience and a definite desire to find the inspiration that he needed, and there was an innate understanding that he would achieve his goals.
Tell me, I’ve still a lot to learn / Understand, these fires never stop / Please believe, when this joke is tired of laughing / I will hear the promise of my Orpheus sing
With Sylvian’s lyrics to this point being known for their layers of meaning, some stretched this conceit to its ultimate on Orpheus, suggesting the lyric was actually inspired by Sylvian’s cat Oppi, describing the strength he gained from its selfless loyalty despite his own troubles! Odd as it may sound, whether Greek legend Orpheus, or Oppi the cat, it was just a symbol of strength imparted by the narrator, so either interpretation worked.