In 2006, Beck made an underrated mid career gem called The Information. Near the end, he discussed the concept of the consummate album with Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers. They describe it as everything from an illuminated manuscript handwritten repeatedly by Monks to the superhuman exoskeleton spaceship of sound. It’s a hyperbolic conversation, but the best idea is that the record itself could grow, depending on your mood, depending on your age. It represents the continuing desire for objects and items to be friends rather than things, the fear of stagnancy giving birth to indifference. It begs the question, is true artistic perfection found in forever remaining perfect? Or in continuing to gain new levels of perfection through supernatural learning and growth?
There is only one other guest I wish Beck had in the studio that day—Brian Eno. His series of ambient records and side projects push the limits of music’s usage intent and value proposition. Since the 1970s, his ambient records have been music for spaces not people, soundtracks to moments in the future, not memories.
The next paragraph in this conversation is Reflection, a record that can and does actually change. The Compact Disc and Vinyl version from Warp do not, but the generative app does. The record is made from parameters rather than performance. The “songs” or “sections” are not definitive when you stream them. It is more like seeing a river in a photograph versus sitting next to it on the grass, hearing the water move past and seeing it change. That’s the imagery Eno used to describe the record and its apt.
The recorded version is all fluttering echoes and patterned harmonies and slow moving waves of energy. Poignant synths echo in cathedrals made from zeroes and ones. Across the thirty minute mark, a drawn out voice holds onto a long note, running over water like a kid on a zip line, it splashes somewhere in the distance. Bells ring and appear and disappear. The record feels like screensaver core, never quite enough to keep all your attention, but you listen, to see what aligns and what doesn’t, what resounds and what reappears.
In the grand scheme of Eno, it’s nothing special, not spacey and concave like Apollo from 1983, or iconic and compelling like Ambient 1. It also doesn’t do anything to separate itself from his fat stack of incredible releases, like say the Fripp and Eno forgotten gem Evening Star, and The Empire Strikes Back of his discography in Plateaux of Mirrors with Harold Budd. Come to think of it, some of his best moments are with a co-conspirator – Jon Hopkins, Karl Hyde, Daniel Lanois, Jon Hassell.
Not to say he can’t crush solo. We have all heard Another Green World and I will be the first to say I wish he still made records like that. But even the solo excursion from 2012, Lux, was minimal and gorgeous and full. Where this record fails isn’t in its imagination, because it is as limitless as a Christopher Nolan film, or its performance, it is computers and dice rolls basically. It fails in conjunction with its own parent catalog. Its no Thursday Afternoon, Reflection’s father in terms of length and ideas and execution. But where Thursday felt immaculate and poised like a poem, this record feels calculated like a math worksheet.
Reflections sounds like something you or I could make in one of Eno’s mildly addicting apps — Scape, Bloom or Trope; all similar music generation systems. It isn’t so much that this record is weak as it is well trodden, and the recipe is out. Any superfan of Eno will feel at home here, but bored. Scape, the best of the three, gave the feeling of creation and exploration in the most relaxing feel possible. Like playing Sim City, if the buildings were made of rain and there was no goal or score or end.
The record can’t truly offer anything that he hasn’t given before more compellingly or creatively. It makes me wonder if he created the generative app, like an autopilot version of Scape, and Warp convinced him to make a record out of it. I have not used the app, but I am much more interested in it than this record as it has much more to offer. It sounds like audio wallpaper. Rather than make a record out of these concepts, I wish Eno would have written a book with his thoughts about the limits of modern music and thrown in a few solid Chris Martin anecdotes. C PLUS