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Like the late British singer-songwriter Nick Drake, it will take death for most critics to take notice of David Sylvian. An enigmatic composer with a devoted cult following, Sylvian emerged in the late Seventies as the brains behind the unspectacular glam-rock outfit Japan. By the time the quartet disbanded in the mid-Eighties, Sylvian had transformed the group into a revered art-rock ensemble with world beat, new age, and jazz leanings. The singer's solo career has been even more impressive, resulting in classic cult recordings like "Brilliant Trees," "Gone to Earth," and "Secrets of the Beehive." These albums rank as some of the most haunting and exquisite pop records ever made. Indeed Sylvian compositions such as "September" and "Laughter & Forgetting" are filled with plangent longing.

It's been nearly six years since Sylvian released a full-length recording, but it's unclear whether fans will embrace his enigmatic new album. Dead Bees on a Cake is neither a clear-cut success nor an outright disappointment. Although the album features the jazz melodies and global rhythms loyalists have come to expect, it breaks little new ground. In fact this fourteen-song collection sounds more like a career overview, a muted celebration of past triumphs. One comes away with the saddening impression that Sylvian has reached a point of creative exhaustion.

Sylvian has always taken a painterly approach to composing and recording, and Dead Bees is another painstakingly assembled effort. The disc runs the gamut from mellow jazz-funk balladry to impressionistic blues and haunting world-music forays. Yet for all its gemlike beauty, the disc lacks the ethereal radiance of Sylvian's past work.

The singer's mawkish spiritualism is especially noisome. In the past the singer's prayerful sentiments were offset by jarring images of mental torment and physical abuse. Dead Bees boasts no such neutralizing imagery. Otherwise appealing tracks such as "Cafe Europa" and "Krishna Blue" are marred by spoken-word performances so corny they would make Jewel recoil. This kind of metaphysical hokum drags Sylvian's inspiring melodies down. In the end Dead Bees is a sweet-tasting confection that lacks sting.

-- Bruce Britt

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