Eno – “Pop Eno”

popenoAs a non-musician, Eno is good at thinking outside the box. He strives for beauty and he takes himself lightly. He is also open to chance.

What a guy.

Occasionally, though, these traits are hard to hear. Witness My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981), his flat collab with David Byrne, or parts of the Ambient series from 1978 on. His foregrounded approach to making background music toes the line between melody and theory. It’s risky. Also, much of what I know about the man comes from reading about him. I read because the music inspires. Usually, be they dreamscapes or dronescapes (or both), his music is tuneful, and he makes you think about what “ambient” really means. So, in Eno’s universe, sound is all; the studio is his dominant instrument. Seen as props (which by themselves signify little), the rock & roll signatures of his pop phase are no less ambient. He creates worlds on which we can project easily.

Here Come The Warm Jets (1974) is the cheekiest Eno. Back in Roxy Music, when he “treated” instruments on a synthesizer, wore eye-liner and stole the show, he was enamored of body music (i.e., dirty sound). A distillation of a distillation, Roxy was all the elements that made rock: noise, sex, boyishness, weirdness. Presence.

And the beat. Always that beat.

Warm Jets expands the Roxy brand. As it burst right after For Your Pleasure, and most of the same hands are on deck, it really is Roxy sans Bryan Ferry. Small choices add up: Lyrics are naughty-sneaky — Seuss-like in their brevity, their imagistic nonsense — and Eno’s voice is almost willfully undisguised, a nerdy white guy with no character to play or singer to mimic. Mostly he sings to complement the wall of sound. It sounds like he’s having fun. Also, Robert Fripp skronks some of the most mind-blowing guitar this side of Lou Reed. Because of how tribal it is — because he is less Euro-dramatic and more conspicuously human as a result — Eno’s debut tops the first two Roxy albums. It’s killer-diller. A

Part two is Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974), minus Fripp. There are fewer hooks and some of Eno’s repetitions bore, but the record is dichotomous, dark, and dissonant, in ways that continue to unfurl. “Back In Judy’s Jungle” is the “Colonel Bogey March” on acid. “Third Uncle” skates on rails. B

Arguably, Another Green World (1975) is the peak in his egg-headed marriage to mood music. Given the obliqueness of his strategies, and as artificial a construct as it is, the album is all of a piece. The balance of textures is fluid, light, and ominous; never does it feel synthetic or strained. There is a real sense of warmth and space. Each little sound collage is sculpted just so, and the track list breathes. It’s linear — but scratch the number of times you have heard the record in full. Each subsequent track still sneaks up on you.

In terms of his oeuvre, Green World is singular for the manner in which it co-opts pop. Any normal associations we have with song structure are tweaked a-new; rhyme, meter and shift are tugged gently. This is a transitional record, a door to the abstract. And its main selling point is, in my mind, its chief limitation. There are days when I long for extended versions of “Spirits Drifting” and “The Big Ship,” where the self-imposed pop format would seem a bit less rigid.1 No matter. For all its novelty (at the time of its release), Green World remains his friendliest, most accessible long-player. A+

Before And After Science: Ten Pictures (1977) is the first Eno-does-Eno album. Psyched, perhaps, by stuff he had done (Another Green World, in particular), and a wee bit scattered, Eno seems to have outgrown the material here. He might be a perfectionist, but it’s just as likely he could not discard the tapes in progress.2 If his whole shtick is to loop-and-group –- merging tracks, letting accidents happen, and sequencing sequences until he’s arrived at something –- Science, due to its clinical disjointedness (a side more pop and a distinct lack of flow all around), is the most translucent example of the process. The album fascinates but it does not sing. “King’s Lead Hat” and “Julie With…” are sublime, but most of the rest of the songs pale. Filler acts less as interlude and connective and more as filler. These bits might fare better in context on a Music For Films blotter. Serving up genius is hard work. B-

Rating: A-

1Between Another Green World and Discreet Music (another benchmark that year and the longest, prettiest fog horn recorded), I may prefer the latter. It is a different beast, though; which means that, with so much choice output to consider, ranking the albums is kind of silly. All such reviews, anyhow, are a matter of bias and taste. This is why you’re reading: The reasoning behind the bias should enlighten. It should flesh out the gut feeling.

2This is a lot like me.

About Jack Cormack

Email Jack at jackyboy916@gmail.com.