Devoted admirer that I am of most things Eno, I must admit that the godfather of ambient music, long-dormant pop innovator, hero of the synthesizer, producer par excellence (U2, Talking Heads, Devo, Coldplay, etc.), and all-around Mensa-rocking Super Genius largely has been off his game for the last two decades, since his brilliant 1990 collaboration with John Cale, “Wrong Way Up.”
Eno’s 2008 rematch with David Byrne, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” was satisfying, true, but that was more Byrne than Eno (something that could not be said of 1981’s “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”). Left to his own devices, either in ambient mode (“Nerve Net,” 1992; “Neroli,” 1993; “The Drop,” 1997) or in the pseudo-song realm (“Another Day on Earth,” 2005), Eno has come off as exceedingly short on inspiration, to say nothing of memorable melodies, to the point where you had to wonder if this was the same guy who’d made ambient classics such as “Thursday Afternoon” (1985) and “Music for Airports” (1978), much less the must-own, stone-cold-brilliant “pop” albums “Here Come the Warm Jets” (1974), “Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy)” (1974), “Another Green World” (1975), and “Before and After Science” (1977).
Thankfully, no such question plagues “Small Craft on a Milk Sea”; rooted in tracks originally recorded for the soundtrack of Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones, but ultimately rejected, this is instrumental Eno at its best.
Fiery guitarists always have pushed Eno to interesting new places, with Robert Fripp and Robert Quine topping that list, and here, he makes the best of the six-string assaults of Leo Abrahams (also heard on “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today”). Just as significantly, though, Eno finally comes to terms with the rhythms of the modern dance floor, after several stumbling attempts in recent years, thanks perhaps to the contributions of a second collaborator, electronica musician Jon Hopkins.
Sure, there are some somnambulistic moments (“Late Anthropocene,” to name one), but those have been there since “Another Green World.” What haven’t, by and large, are thrilling sonic eruptions such as “Flint March,” “Complex Heaven,” “Horse,” and “2 Forms of Anger,” none of which could ever be mistaken for mere background music intended to enhance the hundred mundane tasks of everyday life or mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner (two of the many ways Eno has described his ambient recordings).
We’ve missed you, Brian; it’s good to have you back. Now do you think you possibly could sing some pop tunes as great as those on “Wrong Way Up” again?
Brian Eno, “Small Craft on a Milk Sea” (Warp): 31/2 stars (out of 4)
Listen to the review on Sound Opinions below