Review: Brian Eno, The Ship

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When listening to old Brian Eno interviews, I found this 2009 exchange with writer Andrew Frost:

BRIAN ENO: I think there's a terrible prejudice in the arts against articulacy, actually. There's a sort of suspicion of, if people can talk well or think about their work, they couldn't be proper artists, because artists are supposed to be sort of passionate, inarticulate, people who dredge things from the sort of “primitive center of their being.” And y’know, while I think that is part of being an artist, I don’t think that’s the whole story by any means. One of the most upsetting things that I ever saw was, in England, Ron Kitaj, who’s an amazing painter, had an exhibition where he decided to write the cards beside the paintings. So instead of a curator or a critic writing a kind of description of what the painting was about, Kitaj decided to do it himself. He was absolutely murdered by British critics for doing that. The cruelest criticism I’ve ever seen. Because to them it seemed to represent an artist who was too big for his own boots. Y’know, “What a nerve—you think you've got a brain as well?”

Part of me hears that exchange and thinks, “Yeah! You go, Eno! Stand up for taking your craft seriously!” Wonderful man, Eno. An articulate intellectual with a beautiful, resonant voice (in speaking as well as singing), and with more than enough weight behind him to lend those statements gravity, because this guy might well go down in the history books as the most important pop musician of the 1970s. I know nobody clicking on a Brian Eno review needs it reiterated just how unheralded his influence remains, but the advancements he made in terms of pop song formula (gradually repeating the same thing over and over again, adding more and more instruments until the song becomes a mass of sound by the end) as well as in sheer tone color (creating new and often highly evocative effects with modern recording technology and electric instruments) are precisely what allow him to go on making statements like the one in that Frost interview, which would get jeers and eye-rolls from anyone else.

And yet another part of me hears that exchange and thinks, “Oh, get down from off your high-horse, you pretentious git, and go back to making music that anyone’s gonna actually listen to.” Listening to The Ship, this latter response weighs much heavier in my brain.

I mean, let’s look at this realistically, shall we? The reason Eno’s given credence with these vague, macro-level pronouncements about the state of the Artistic World is because of the seminally important work he did four decades ago in what are basically pop records: his first four solo albums of songs and short instrumental pieces, the first two Roxy Music albums, his collaborations with Talking Heads, and to a lesser extent those with David Bowie, U2, and others. All of which, of course, is work that contains more genius than 99.9% of artists manage in their entire lives. But that does nothing to change the fact that Eno’s own solo records have seen dilution after dilution of the static ambience he invented on side one of Discreet Music (which has much prettier synth tones than Music for Airports) for what seems like eons.

There was a time where this stuff could stand for something in what Eno describes in that Frost interview as the “whole culture,” including (as he puts it) science, philosophy, politics, and so on. Eno’s own heyday more or less paralleled the rise of minimalist (or by that point, post-minimalist) and spectral classical music, which itself paralleled the diffusion of melody in rock music after the 1960s, which paralleled the general distrust of authority that has continued since then. And yet ambient music remains a sideline for Eno, whether he admits it or not. Admittedly, Another Green World—a top five album of the ‘70s—does largely consist of ambient music of a sort, but it’s in the form of tracks so rich in ideas, and so brief, that they do amply reward active listening. This is music where the most important element is timbre, as opposed to melody, rhythm, or harmony, specifically with sounds that have only become possible with modern technology: programming synthesizers, manipulating the sound of electric guitars, recording instruments at particular levels of volume and from particular places in the studio (or outside the studio), etc., and using those sounds in ways that seem to envelop you, making the music seem like a complete sensory world into which you’ve somehow wandered.

There are moments of brilliance on many Eno ambient albums, from the stronger and even jazzier rhythmic additions to 2011’s Drums Between the Bells (check “Seedpods”) to the cosmic emotional weight he lent to Apollo back in 1983 to the sheer proposition of 1985’s one-track, hour-long Thursday Afternoon, which broke new musical ground in terms of things not happening. But generally his solo albums have not distinguished themselves in years, from the complete dead zone of his ‘90s work to 2010’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea, which sounds just as beige as its cover. It’s telling that the most interesting and rewarding Eno albums from the last 35 years have been collaborations: the exotic Possible Musics (with Jon Hassell), the calm Pearl (with Harold Budd), the almost jaunty Wrong Way Up (with John Cale), the charmingly domestic Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (with David Byrne, though it could’ve used more of Eno singing), and especially 2014’s Afro-funky Karl Hyde collaboration High Life, which featured a few tracks that teemed with the kind of genius that actually got me excited for this new album.

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Alas, no matter what critics are parroting from their press kits, The Ship is just another shimmery ambient album, and one that I’ll bet none of the people giving raves will ever play again, if they even remember it in a week’s time. I listened several times in full in different environments, and have found little worth living with; there’s no proposition here, and there certainly ain’t much entertainment value either. Supposedly the record is “obliquely inspired by the sinking of the Titanic as a metaphor for scientific hubris presaging the industrialized conflict of WWI,” though I’m strapped to find anything of particular poignance in the music that bears that out. Not that I don’t appreciate the attempt, I guess.

Want me to describe the sound of the tracks? Well, the title track is 21 minutes—if this were the vinyl age, it’d be the first side, à la Discreet Music (again)—and is easily the superior of the two long pieces. Opening with humming, swelling string-like synth that soon gives way to actual strings, it’s built around the kind of beautiful high synth resonance that sounds like the sound you get when you wet your finger and run it around the rim of a cocktail glass. The totality of the sky, unfettered above our futile human struggles, a faint hearth-y glow bleeding in to the treble range a few minutes in, which in turn bleeds into a pan-pipe noise and a heartening donnnnnng of a metal tube knocked from far away on a river, which repeats more frequently as the track continues on. Faint snatches of scratchy radio transmissions underscore Eno’s voice, which arrives six minutes in and resonates throughout like a low foghorn drone. Eno has a wonderful voice, but the words are the kind of poetry that can only mean anything significant to the person who wrote them, and the simple tune he sings is the kind where you’ll know how it’s gonna fall before the first phrase even finishes. After a digital swell eight-and-a-half minutes in, the track doesn’t have much else to give: the radio voices get more and more frequent and noticeable, and after the 11-minute mark the low end seeps out from under your ears and you realize how much ballast has gone out of the track, finally winding down with “wave…after wave…after wave.”

“Fickle Sun” is considerably less successful. The first 18-minute part is a total loss, a spare bit of idiophone tinkle and warped-bubble synth noise whose spacing you could describe as “irregular” or could alternately describe as “half-assed.” The high synth resonance gets louder and louder to the point of being nearly deafening until coming to a breaking point six minutes in, whereupon Eno brings up soldier imagery (soldiers are mentioned in the title track too) and big portentous horn blasts eventually follow, like the desperate and probably-unhappy finish to a thriller movie. The last six minutes are given to Eno’s voice steadily becoming more and more concealed behind a vocoder, shrouding his words in artifice as other voices click-click-click from channel to channel. It’s not very interesting. Nor is the following “Hour Is Thin” track, featuring the guy who dubbed the voice of Darth Maul in the first Star Wars prequel (!!!) reading an Eno poem that ends with the line, “the universe is required, please notify the sun.”

This immediately drifts into a slow, contented version of the Velvet Underground's “I’m Set Free”, which is the token “pop” track here that I was glad to get. It helps that it’s a lovely song to begin with (proving that even the infamously un-hippie Velvets could still be swayed by ‘60s California), but it’s a joy hearing that melody and those liberated words coming from someone who’s absorbed and aimed for that liberated feeling for a long while. At long last, we get Eno’s full voice resonating with a sort of cosmic release, soft guitar scrape and synths greening-up the field of vision from all the previous blah. “Find a new illusion,” indeed. And the violins are a nice touch, supplanting the original recording’s cymbals (which marked a rare case of Moe Tucker even using them).

Bottom line, I’d check the Velvets cover and half the title track, and leave the rest. Basically, this particular ambient music doesn’t lend much intellectual export or posterity that Eno so often claims to pursue. (Being slower isn’t necessarily a sign of intellectual maturity.) His approach may show it, but that’s his prerogative. Nothing wrong with staying in a mood, but this mood—whatever it is—sounds pretty played-out to me. I said soundsB MINUS