I was introduced to Brian Eno long ago by my uncle, who talked about how he was exploring using particular tones to provoke reactions within the brain that could subliminally make you feel a certain way, as though he were less a musician and more a scientist. He then strongly recommended the Ghosts in the Bush album, claiming it was two decades ahead of its time. Of course my interest was piqued, once I could figure out what exactly he was talking about. Nowadays I’m pretty well-versed on Eno, and even though I still don’t know if he’s ever tried to make subliminally suggestive music, it does sound like exactly the sort of thing he would do. Eno’s treated his entire music career like one big art project, challenging not only the way we listen to music but also its very purpose.
Whether or not this translates into good records, I’ll let you decide. There is certainly something frustrating about it; ask Brian Eno for an apple and he’ll give you a red marker so you can draw your own on the refrigerator wall. I admit, it was fun to watch the WRC try to dissect this stuff, rating albums like Thursday Afternoon on a scale of 10; I give it a 5, cuz that’s how many notes are on the album. “It isn’t meant to be actively listened to” they say; a huge swath of Eno’s output is meant for the background, adding texture to the room in the same way a painting in the corner would. Note that the vast majority of ambient music (which Eno is said to have invented) isn’t this way, but credit him for taking that plunge. Still frustrating because we know what Eno’s capable of; his best ambient work is absolutely stunning, those first four vocal albums are all-time classics, and even his most recent discs with Karl Hyde are surprisingly great. And yet so much of his career consists of these do-nothing, go-nowhere ambient albums that are awfully pretty (check out 2012’s LUX), but tend to belong more in the art installations that they were originally designed for.
The Ship is notable for bringing something new to the table; vocal-heavy yet steeped in the same ethos as his longform ambient work, with an underlying concept that (for once) you don’t need the liner notes for. Eno conceived of the work as music “you can walk inside” and once you hear it you’ll know what he’s talking about. The music here has an immense sense of space to it, as though you are moving around a landscape, witnessing certain events pass you by. Violins in the distance, what sounds like some brass, and of course those ever-present synth tones that Eno uses in so much of his work. No melody and no real center, but there is something brewing here. After five minutes you start to hear more; garbled voices in the background, little radar blips, barely audible clips from radio broadcasts. Suddenly the center arrives; his own vocal, heavily treated but still clearly Eno.
The vocals are the most notable thing here, as they come at you in so many different forms. There’s Eno’s own singing of course, but also radio broadcasts, texts ran through Applespeak, and some that are jumbled up so badly that you can’t make out the words. More interesting are the lyrics, which Eno compiled by feeding a bunch of texts through a Markov chain generator, including letters from WW1, accounts of the sinking of the Titanic, some of Eno’s own recycled lyrics, and at one point, if you pay attention, you can hear the Applespeak program reciting an email disclaimer (about 15:30 into “Fickle Sun (I)”). So the most intriguing phrases were generated by an algorithm; accidental poetry that gives the album a very surreal quality, as though the music is haunted. Eno has toyed around in the space of generative music for a long time (“Discreet Music”, a composition that was formed by modifying a digital sequencer) but it’s often as a science experiment; here it results in a lot of mindscrew, depending on how much you’re paying attention. It’s not just the lyrics either – both long tracks are full of random “sound events” which keep you on your toes. Ideally it would be the sort of piece that would change every time you listen to it.
There’s a pensive mood to nearly everything here – lots of prettiness in the individual sounds, but also a sense of foreboding (the sinking of the Titanic?), especially once you realize that Eno himself was not fully in control here. “Fickle Sun (i)” is the more oppressive of the two long pieces, mostly thanks to the addition of a crashing brass section and a lot of buzz. Crank it up and it might scare the living daylights out of ya around the 8 minute mark. Which, I might point out, is something you can’t say about anything Eno’s done in the past.
After 40 or so minutes of this, there are some surprises in store. “Fickle Sun (ii)” is a poem read by Peter Serafinowicz, who you may know as Pete from Shaun of the Dead. I’m normally not one for these sort of spoken word tracks but the poem is really strange, formed entirely out of auto-generated text, resulting in some strangely profound phrasing – “I was a hard copy version”, “Ding, dang, and gongs – who did not feel any purpose?”, “You are fighting for…I wonder what destiny”, “The phoenix broods serene above the tower of time”. And then the final line, which I love: “The universe is required – please notify the sun” – I can’t make any sense of it either, but there’s something so unexpected about it, especially as it segues into the final track, a gorgeous cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free”. That’s the real whiplash moment here, not just because of how gorgeous and serene it is (especially in context of everything else here), but also because it hits a style that Eno has rarely returned to since the 70’s.
I really have no idea how this is going to shape up in the context of 2016, which, like the two years prior, has been loaded with great albums from artists who’ve been around the block a few times. If nothing else it’s going to go down as one of the year’s most unique albums; I struggle to think of another album quite like this one. For Eno, it’s part of a surpisingly creative surge – he’s done more quality work this decade than he has in the 90’s and 00’s combined, and hopefully there’s more in the years to come.