(Warp Records; 2016)
Brian Eno doesn’t release albums casually. It tends to be a big deal with him: He’ll start a project, mess around with it, change it substantially from the initial idea, mess around with it some more, and maybe scrap it for years, filed away in his vast archives for an unknown duration. Maybe, though, just MAYBE, he’ll like the results, or the specific parameters of the project dictate that it be released sooner rather than later, OR, a collaborator will inspire him or advise him to get the thing out, like, NOW. All those things seem to have taken place during the gestation of his latest Warp recording, THE SHIP, which began life as part of a sound installation and a provocative initial theme having to do with the Titanic and the folly of World War I, two oft-cited examples by Eno of man’s technological arrogance and delusional thinking that resulted in catastrophe and harsh lessons not learned well enough. Eno is certainly not interested in any linear history lesson, however, or even anything approaching a conventional song cycle. What we fans treasure about the man is the sonic EXPERIENCE he provides listeners: The studio innovation, haunting sounds, stylistic surprises and contextual shift from album to album. THE SHIP is a most welcome entry in Eno’s considerable canon: A consistently listenable platter that harkens back to previous releases, features familiar immersive ambient textures and breaks new ground simultaneously. Describing it is tough, but here are the main features of this remarkable work.
It consists of two very long pieces and two short ones. First up is what we used to call the “side-long” piece, “The Ship,” which commences with lovely, drifting ambience that certainly can make you think you’re on the vast open sea, under disarmingly calm skies. Much like Titanic’s passengers were, of course. Just when you’ve been lulled by a healthy slab of Eno’s familiar synthscape, the first surprise: Eno’s own vocals, intoning “The ship was from a willing land/The waves about it rose.” With his voice utilizing intervals both a fourth and an octave apart, Eno provides something we haven’t heard on one of his records for a long time. There are shades of “By This River” and the atmospheric feel of his classic ANOTHER GREEN WORLD here (which referenced water several times). “A slave to hopes of destiny/Illusion of control” is a line that pops up later in this section, clearly a key lyric in the context of the theme. Increasingly diverse sounds begin to enter… nautical beeps and pings, clanging sounds (it’s known that much of Eno’s childhood in the Woodbridge area of England found him soaking up the sounds of nearby shipyards and greats masts probably flapping in the wind), unsettling background voices and whispers. The ghosts of lost souls are active on this record, no doubt. The spell that is cast is a considerable one. You find yourself amazed that this innovative artist and composer is using all his familiar tricks, and yet somehow coming up with something fresh, something that gets under your skin once again. It’s kind of stunning. There is certainly a narrative at work here, but it doesn’t all need to be clearly discerned or “conventional.” This is MUSIC, after all. Not oral history. “Wave… after wave… after wave” a disembodied voice concludes in this shimmering, lovely track. The three-part “Fickle Sun” is up next, and this is a doozy in Eno’s vast output. The lengthy first part, titled simply “Fickle Sun,” again features ambient layers unfolding, but something really ominous quickly grabs our ears. A pulsing, uncertain bass keeps intruding at various volume levels, with distant brass and a threatening feeling imposing itself with increasing intensity. Eno’s voice again comes in, talking about “a cumulus of pride and will/Dissolved in all the oil and steel,” and other provocative lyrics. “The line is long, the line is gray/And humans turning back to clay/Right there beneath the fickle sun/The empty eyes/The end begun… ” (not sure about the last two words). Things begin to get ferociously intense after this passage. “There’s no one rowing anymore… ” Eno sings, an obvious image from the aftermath of the Titanic sinking. Then we hear pounding orchestral music, another big surprise on an Eno record. All hell has broken loose, and there wouldn’t even NEED to be words in the piece for it to be effective. But the combination of the evocative, minimalistic lyric passages and the enveloping music is simply a wonder. “All the boys are going down/Falling over one by one… ” our narrator tells us, now getting a piercing image from World War I into the mix. Sad, organ-like keys now adorn the unspooling narrative, with Eno’s voice receding or changing character dramatically. The next seven or eight minutes rank as one of the most powerful sections on any Eno album. It’s weird, it’s disturbing, it’s utterly beautiful and texturally gripping. It doesn’t need to be described in detail, but it’s classic Brian Eno, ending with a sequence of huge, lush chords and ghostly voices that are the work of a master. I’m STILL shivering from listening to this section repeatedly.
A spoken word essay delivered by Peter Serafinowicz and accompanied by simple, straight melodic piano, constitutes “The Hour Is Thin,” a short and memorable interlude. Eno has had more than a fair amount of spoken word on his recordings in recent years, but this piece is effective here, clearly addressing the nightmare of post World War I England and the changes that befell the populace. I love the last line, “The universe is required. Please notify the sun.” It’s immediately followed by another delightful surprise, a gorgeous Eno-sung cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free.” It’s rare that Eno covers other artists, and when he does, he usually keeps such tracks tucked away in his studio. In fact, in recent interviews he talked about how much he liked this song and what it meant to him, but he couldn’t find the right context for this legendary recording until now. What a gem it is. “I’m set free to find a new illusion,” he sings, and Eno clearly regards that as a working mantra, tipping his hat to what Lou Reed and the Velvets meant to him in the process. Sweetly sad, captivating, filled with gorgeous synth work and Neil Catchpole’s fetching violin and viola contributions, “I’m Set Free” serves as an unlikely yet perfect coda for a truly stirring record. THE SHIP is the work of a master craftsman still finding ways to surprise both himself and his vast audience. Drift along with Brian Eno, folks… he’ll make sure you get safely to shore with new things to think about.