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Jim DeRogatis

Eno Once Again Sails The Ambient Seas, With One Killer Exception

Though no one in rock history has been more eloquent in talking about his methodology in music-making, legendary producer and musician Brian Eno rarely has addressed the meaning of his own sounds. His ambient work, by definition, is infinitely open-ended and defiant of interpretation, while his more straightforward songs have evaded literal readings thanks in large part to an approach toward lyrics derived from Hugo Ball and the Dada movement.

But Eno has had a lot to say about the concepts behind his 18th solo album The Ship. “Humankind seems to teeter between hubris and paranoia: the hubris of our ever-growing power contrasts with the paranoia that we’re permanently and increasingly under threat,” he wrote. “At the zenith we realise we have to come down again... we know that we have more than we deserve or can defend, so we become nervous. Somebody, something is going to take it all from us: that is the dread of the wealthy. Paranoia leads to defensiveness, and we all end up in the trenches facing each other across the mud.”

The specific hubris in question is the building of the “unsinkable” Titanic, which we all know was anything but, while the trenches are those of the killing fields of World War I. But the storyline through three-fourths of Eno’s new album is not that easily followed, despite his own treated vocals and some poetry read by actor Peter Serafinowicz (Shaun of the Dead). And the moody, atmospheric drones and washes of lush synthesizer are unexceptional by the bar he set for himself, ranking far below his strongest ambient offerings—Thursday Afternoon (1985), say, or Discreet Music way back in 1975.

By far the best track here—and instantly one of the best in his extensive canon—is the closing cover of “I’m Set Free” from the Velvet Underground’s third (quietest and most Enoesque) studio album. After the four “pop” albums between 1973 and 1977 that represent his most groundbreaking work, Eno largely abandoned singing, even though it was American doo-wop that first sparked his interest in music, and his “stacked” or layered harmonies have always been astounding, even if his voice on its own is unremarkable, reedy and thin.

As a singer, Eno hasn’t sounded this great since his cover of the standard “You Don’t Miss Your Water” in 1988 and his collaboration two years later with the Velvets’ John Cale, Wrong Way Up. The song, a relative sleeper in the Velvets’ own masterful canon, has never sounded more beautiful and entrancing, and far from being mired in the history of the early part of the last century, its refrain—“I’m set free to find a new illusion”—could be the perfect reading of our own strange and troubling times.

Brian Eno, The Ship (Warp)

Rating on the 4-star scale: 2.5 stars.

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