Brian Eno: Music for laboratories
Small Craft on a Milk Sea
There's a clever, jokey Twitter account called Discographies which trades in pithy assessments of musicians and their albums, referring to the latter by ordinal number. Last week it posted the following: "Brian Eno: 1-3,5 'Whatcha doin', Professor?' 'I'm inventing the future of music.' 4,6-24 'Now whatcha doin'?' 'Inventing it again. Quietly.'"
That's not so much jokey, of course, as tender, and also true. But 140 characters isn't enough space to relate the fits and starts, breakthroughs and burnt messes that define invention. As an inventor Brian Eno has made both his share of breakthroughs and messes, and his greatest creation of all is Brian Eno. But what often gets missed in discussion is the way his willingness to risk failure has defined his musical inventiveness and made his successes stand out all the more. His latest album, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, provides a terrific example of this, with triumphs and missteps seated side by side, experimentalism burbling away, and plenty of soft, ethereal prettiness of a type he most certainly originated. Whenever he does release an album, there's a rush to declare it as a return to form or a novel triumph, and also to announce once again that Eno is art rock's infallible emperor. But is Eno really the outsized savant of legend, or is that merely the success of his invention?
It has been five years since Eno's last solo release, the straightforward and mellow Another Day on Earth. (His 2008 collaboration with David Byrne, Everything that Happens Will Happen Today, wasn't so much disappointing as slight.) Alternately raging and elegiac, Small Craft came about through several years spent in collaboration with two longtime comrades, the electronic musician Jon Hopkins and the guitarist Leo Abrahams. This speaks to something which is often overlooked in the Eno mythology: his effectiveness as a collaborative artist.
This has been clear from the beginning. His first two albums with Roxy Music are just great, but not for Eno's musicianship. Once he went solo, his reliance on a network of master musicians was central to his creative success. Moreover, his sonic signatures - repetition, drone, rhythmic insistence - owe much to the German rock bands he first esteemed and later collaborated with, who would eventually be filed under the genre tag "Krautrock". This isn't to say that Eno's empire is simply built on the hard work of others; the ability to synthesise influence and conjure great work for musical partners is an important skill.
The other side of Eno's art came when he abandoned pop structures completely. It started with Discreet Music and continued through the Ambient series (including the iconic Music for Airports). These later albums, while interesting in the abstract, aren't necessarily the easiest listening experiences. They are ingenious, but are they fun or stimulating? There were tape-loop projects, experiments in improvisation and in random music generation, and collaborations with many of those Krautrock artists. These inventions were concerned with the automation of sound and beauty, the removal of the human trace while retaining the emotional impact. That impulse remains with Eno today, evident in a pair of iPhone apps which he helped develop - Bloom and Trope - where the user is the collaborator and the work created is based on a concept rather than a riff.
Eno's other great reputation is as a producer, but here too the collaborative element makes it difficult to distinguish what is really his own. His glorious triad of David Bowie albums from the mid-Seventies (Heroes, Low, Lodger), and his work with Talking Heads perhaps best define whatever "sound" he ever had. What defines Eno's productions here is a sense of graduality, verging on outright stasis a lot of the time. There's a pretty clear throughline from Another Green World to Low, but Bowie and Eno were swimming in the same water at the time. Likewise Talking Heads already hewed pretty close to Eno's aesthetics when they linked up, and David Byrne and Eno had collaborated on an album together.
The collaborative part of the equation drops out with U2 and, more recently, Coldplay. U2's guitarist The Edge is often quoted saying things like: "Brian came in and said 'Make it purple' which is how we got the sound on Mysterious Ways." One gets the sense that Eno believed his mere presence was guidance enough, and the band agreed and made whatever it was already going to make. Eno is like a business consultant who comes in and tells the manager to get new curtains and fire the guy in sales because he's too good-looking, but doesn't know anything about the particular business at hand. These bands have branded their music as Eno-related, but it's never clear what value beyond branding he's brought to their sounds. Coldplay in particular took direction from Eno on Viva la Vida and ended up with a pretty, well-wrought album that is astonishingly boring.
Small Craft is not a boring album. It shoots skyward and falls back to earth over and over. Its Milk Sea is likely the Milky Way, and the heavens are invoked more than a few times, both sonically and in song titles. Few of its tracks top the three-minute mark, so listeners are offered a rapid succession of elegant melodies and goofball stunts in the course of 16 tracks. Emerald and Lime begins things gently, a melodica melody coaxed from within sedate keyboard washes. The large cosmic fracas of Complex Heaven follows, its repetitive chords gilded by remarkably nimble guitar work (Eno seems to have retaken to the guitar on this album). The title track goes a bit deeper and darker, before Flint March, a rattling return to earth with driving, elemental rhythms and screaming synths.
Continuing the rhythmic assault, 2 Forms of Anger recapitulates the deep Krautrock drones of yore with flashes of metallic guitar and synth. The aggression in the album blows out on Horse, whose intense breakbeats prove Eno worthy of his new electro record label. There are clunkers here too, mainly in the middle of the album: the 8-bit foolery of Bone Jumpand the messy Dust Shuffle. Paleosonic features stellar guitar work but more Nintendo crumminess. As the album begins to wind down, Lesser Heaven, Emerald and Stone (its gorgeous swirling piano arpeggios an album highlight), and Written, Forgotten head skyward again, into the pretty pink clouds of twilight. The eight-minute cruiser Late Antropocene and finale, Invisible, find Eno at his most spaced, with meandering melodies gliding along next to constant, calming drones.
Many have expressed excitement at Eno's move to the Warp record label, long a home to electronic innovators, most of whom are in some way indebted to him. It's a canny piece of positioning on Eno's part, the geezer who's still playing around, still hip. Small Craft is neither a return to form nor a novel excursion, and it needn't be either. It's simply an intriguing new release from one of music's great inventors, and a fine way to spend 55 minutes of one's day. The weight often placed on Eno obscures his playfulness, his flaws, and his energy for creation, all of which are far more interesting than his reputation for genius.
A good counterpoint is Eno's old Roxy Music bandmate Bryan Ferry, who has also released a new album, Olympia. From its pin-up cover art to musical palette to song titles (Heartache by Numbers, Alphaville) it is barely distinguishable from any Ferry record since Avalon. He's not one for having many new ideas, but plenty of great music has been made by artists with one good idea iterated ad infinitum. Yet the deliberateness of Olympia makes it feel somehow soulless and hollow.
Talk about collaboration; Ferry lined up Eno and fellow former Roxy-ers Phil Manzanera and Andrew Mackay, along with Jonny Greenwood, Nile Rodgers, David Gilmour, Flea, Scissor Sisters and Groove Armada. Dave Stewart helped out with songwriting and playing. The result is a rather grand mess. Ferry's voice isn't what it used to be, but it's still the best asset on the album, especially on the towering cover of Tim Buckley's Song to the Siren. Ferry seems petrified by irrelevance, and, as ever, fully focused on his image. What's great and inspiring about Small Craft is that it doesn't care if it gets everything right. Eno doesn't know how to worry about the kinds of posturing and calculation that has defined his old bandmate's career. He's too busy thinking about what to make next.
J Gabriel Boylan is an assistant editor at Harper's Magazine and has written on music and books for The Nation, Spin and The Boston Globe.