Face it. The complexities and ironies of Brian Eno’s prolific procession along his self-declared uncertainty principle (“oblique strategies”) are unfathomable. Put simply, how did the most obscurely gifted of the glam-clad gang of non-musicians who revolutionized ’70s rock as Roxy Music become, in turn, a bizarrely thrilling rock auteur, the fairy godmother of no wave nihilism, the successful prophet of amorphous ambient sound, a consummate foil for David Bowie and David Byrne, an adjunct member of Talking Heads and, for two decades, an in-demand record producer-as such, the indispensable ally of the world’s most ambitious stadium band, U2? Or, conversely, how did someone so demonstrably ingenious at tearing at the fringes of pop become such a pompous art prat prostituting his highbrow egghead pretensions on big-bucks bombast while plying nonsense theories and making countless unlistenable albums of seemingly random drivel in dilettantish collaborations with wally progressos from several lands?
The answer, alas, isn’t conveniently discernible from the pair of sumptuous three-CD Virgin box sets that summarize the Englishman’s voluminous recorded output, neatly divided into Instrumental and Vocal categories, an approach that deserves to be completed by a Productions collection. (Actually, the titles are a mystery. The numerals that appear on the cases are not repeated anywhere else, and while the booklets are entitled Webs and One, the latter is a component of II, which was, naturally, released first.) What is evident, however, is what an original and engaging method Eno brings to pop music — when he deigns to slum in such common pursuits. The Vocal box wisely includes (nearly in their entirety on two discs) the four essential albums with which the post-Roxy Musician staked out his esoteric personal territory in the art-rock wars. Although the infusion of subdued experimentation and subtle atmospherics as essential components increasingly tempered the wry, frenzied genius that makes the amazing Here Come the Warm Jets such a landmark, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World and Before and After Science all display aspects of Eno’s maturing ideas about how he would express himself in song. (For those on a limited budget, the cassette/vinyl More Blank Than Frank is Eno’s idiosyncratic condensation of the same four albums. With some repertoire fiddling, Desert Island Selection is the CD edition.)
The third disc of Vocal is an eclectic sampler, including three tracks each from his influential world-music-plus-found-vocal samples album with David Byrne and his 1990 collaboration with John Cale (the wonderful Wrong Way Up, a deft subversion of Top 40 formulae which brought Eno back to singing after a long silence), a pair of Nerve Net‘s rarefied dance-music expeditions (on which Eno’s vocals are, at most, minor) and five gentle, electronic-sounding Wrong Way Up-like items from the modest and engaging (but unreleased) My Squelchy Life album, recorded in 1991. Finally, the disc offers one-song samples from Eno’s 1978 single with Snatch (Patti Palladin and Judy Nylon), Cale’s Eno-produced Words for the Dying and After the Heat, the second of Eno’s two albums with the German duo Cluster (Moebius and Roedelius). (Old Land is a compilation.)
The Instrumental entourage is both more complex in its non-chronological (not that it matters) organization and intrinsically harder to assess, as Eno moves from the exploratory wordless band essays included on his ’70s vocal albums to the conceptually provocative, sonically lulling Music for Films, a series of four albums of hypothetical soundtrack elements. (Besides the three commercially available volumes compiled on Disc 1, there’s also a sampling of the “directors edition,” evidently circulated privately in 1976.) Mostly recorded alone on electronic keyboards, the brief, incidental mood-setters are lovely and graceful, and occasionally a bit more biting than that, but often seem to ebb and flow from a continuous stream rather than individually considered constructions. Considering how flimsy ambient music (“sonic wallpaper” to those not so inclined) became in other’s hands — at least until the techno crowd emerged to slap on a beat — Eno’s pioneering efforts in the field are handsome and mellifluously substantial.
Collaborators make the second disc in the Instrumental box its most compelling: “Warszawa” and “Moss Garden” from, respectively, Bowie’s Low and Heroes albums have a charged drama not found in Eno’s solo creations. Jon Hassell adds an avant-garde edge to their work together, and Harold Budd is presumably responsible for the lovely piano on his two joint tracks. A lengthy co-composition with Daniel Lanois from Apollo Atmospheres & Soundtracks adequately summarizes that space voyage; an edit from Evening Star provides a sense of Eno’s very early ethereal guitar/tape drone tail-eating exercises with Robert Fripp.
Jumping around solo projects from the ’70s to the ’90s, the final disc of Instrumental touches on the intentionally becalming Music for Airports, Eno’s first “environmental music” release (slower Music for Films with less going on); Discreet Music (a haunting minimalist experiment using classical structures as the basis for tape loops and manipulations); the intricately realized and expressive sound paintings of On Land (an album of regional ruminations with subtle contributions from Hassell, guitarist Michael Brook, bassist Bill Laswell and synthesist Michael Beinhorn); Thursday Afternoon (an extremely gauzy and motionless hour-long composition — mostly tinkly piano bits and endlessly held string-like keyboard strains-created to accompany a video-art piece); The Shutov Assembly (ten colorful ambient floats, some with an Eastern accent and several with bird sounds, recorded during the second half of the ’80s); and Neroli (self-importantly subtitled Thinking Music Part IV, it’s another hour of very nearly nothing, explained in extraordinarily pompous liner notes by one C.S.J. Bofop).
Back to the beginning of the story: Leaving his original role as electronics dabbler and art-rocker with Roxy Music in the early 1970s, Brian Eno became the epitome of the independent artist — articulate, intelligent, serious and intent on following his own impulses. He progressed from a tight, wry pop music into more difficult forms, incorporating aspects of many different disciplines. In addition to his solo work, Eno has collaborated with many people; he became a major force in the emerging music of the ’80s as producer of such adventurers as Ultravox, Talking Heads, New York no-wave bands, Devo, U2 and others.
Here Come the Warm Jets, Eno’s first foray as a solo artist, features sharply crafted, cerebral pop songs that put equal emphasis on quirky music and chatty, surrealistic lyrics — an endearing novelty record with bizarre but affecting songs that no one else could have made.
Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) finds Eno flirting with Chinese communism and dream psychology as grist for his lyric mill. The tone of the music is darker overall than on the first album; though Eno was already beginning to show a mistrust of pop forms, the songs here are filled with humor and joy and his continuing taste for experimentation.
By Another Green World, Eno was enhancing his work with crystal-clear production. Much of the album features beautiful, fragile instrumentals, leaving the manic rock tone of the first two albums behind. Electronics play a greater role, and Eno all but abandons standard pop forms for a less-formulaic sound that presages his future ambient work.
Discreet Music (as well as his two collaborations with Robert Fripp) was first devised while Eno was recovering from an auto accident, and it marks his experimental break from pop forms, using classical structures as the basis for tape loops and manipulations. The result is striking and haunting, filled with beauty and apprehension, paralleling the minimalist music being made by Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
Before and After Science was the apex of Eno’s pop work, a collection of ten lyrical songs — ranging from bouncy, eccentric pop (“King’s Lead Hat”) to wistfully pastoral songs (“Spider and I,” “Through Hollow Lands”) — that smack of vast distances. The pivotal work of Eno’s career, it sees him spanning whole musical worlds, but from this point on, his involvement with pop music was, for a long time, relegated to production work.
Music for Films, which introduced Eno’s subsequent focus, consists of fragments done over the years as possible soundtracks for imaginary movies. (Eno’s work has since appeared on several actual soundtracks.) Totally instrumental, the album features a return, with greater sophistication, to the work of Discreet Music — a conscious attempt to imply subtle moods and settings through electronically manipulated sound.
Ambient music, which goes directly against Western tradition by not demanding explicit attention from the listener, was introduced on Music for Airports, a stark but hypnotic collection of sounds especially composed for airport sound systems to inure passengers to flying and death. Whether successful (or even ever used) in that setting or not, the album’s spare and delicate sounds open up the meditative possibilities of music.
Beginning in the mid-’70s, Eno began forging numerous collaborations (with 801, Ayers — Cale — Nico, Bowie, Cluster, Jon Hassell, Talking Heads, etc.) that allow him to dabble in (as well as influence) various strains of popular music, from fusion rock to electro-pop. In 1977, he teamed up with the atmospheric German duo Cluster (aka Moebius and Roedelius) — who first joined him on a modest track on Before and After Science — on an eponymous LP which made tentative steps in the direction of mood-evoking electronics. More successful is the 1978 collaboration, After the Heat, an alluring — occasionally compelling — collection of instrumentals that deftly avoid the pitfalls of ambient music, plus three tracks with vocals of varying value (one declaimed, one sung, a third sung but played backwards). (Old Land is a selection of tracks from both LPs.)
The Plateaux of Mirror, with Harold Budd, finds Eno expanding his ambient work to multi-dimensional proportions, while My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, with David Byrne, allows him to indulge his fascination with African and other Third World rhythms, with the latter made more intriguing through the mixture of these rhythms and found speech and music tapes. Possible Musics is an exploration of different areas of ethno-musicology with experimental Canadian trumpeter Jon Hassell.
By On Land, Eno had polished his ambient music into a dense, evocative representation of terra incognita. Though sometimes obscure and always devoid of lyrics, the work shows Eno at his most expressive, with sound paintings that exist somewhere between ancient mantra and avant-garde.
Invited to do the music for a film about the Apollo space missions, Eno used all of his inspiration about the grandeur and mystery of man’s walking on the moon to create Apollo Atmospheres & Soundtracks, recorded in conjunction with his brother Roger and longtime collaborator, Daniel Lanois (also known for his solo production work with Martha and the Muffins and others; he issued a solo album in the late ’80s). Avoiding any sensationalistic (or even typical space/rocketry) sounds, it’s another hauntingly poetic collection of ambient pieces, written and played variously by all three musicians.
Thursday Afternoon is a 61-minute instrumental piece (logically enough issued only on CD) created to accompany a VHS cassette of “video paintings” by Christine Alicino. The soothing spaciousness of the soundtrack ambience belies its compositional sophistication, as explained in the liner notes.
Roger Eno chipped in on the Music for Films III LP, the first of that series featuring some tracks not primarily by Brian. Standout cuts are those by Harold Budd, John Paul Jones and Brian himself (though not the ones teaming him with his U2 co-producer Daniel Lanois). Also of note is the track licensed from Soviet artistes Misha Mahlin and Lydia Theremin.
Working Backwards 1983 — 1973 is an eleven-disc boxed set of his solo albums through Music for Films Volume 2, plus an otherwise unavailable LP of Rarities, featuring such items as “Seven Deadly Finns” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Issued to coincide with the publication of the More Dark Than Shark book, the one-LP More Blank Than Frank is a modest and idiosyncratic compilation — ten of the artist’s own faves from his first four solo records (excluding Discreet Music) with careful annotation. (The cassette adds two tracks.) Desert Island Selection is the CD issue of More Blank Than Frank. The pointless Boxed Set contains Another Green World, Before and After Science and Apollo.
Working together for the first time in years, Eno produced John Cale’s Words for the Dying in 1989; the following year, Eno found himself unexpectedly inclined to resume singing, and the two collaborated on an album. For all the things a joint effort by the two could have been, it’s a small miracle that Wrong Way Up turned out to be an absolutely wonderful pop record, a subversion of Top 40 formulae to the pair’s own idiosyncratic (but utterly accessible) ends. Blending Eno’s ambience and Cale’s classical lyricism, as well as the pair’s contrasting voices (and capturing the whole thing in a masterfully subtle studio effort), Wrong Way Up is a marvel, a tuneful and catchy collection whose instant likability belies its highbrow origins (not to mention the partners’ reported disharmony, reflected in the cover art’s dagger graphics). It’s hard to remember when either Cale or Eno has sounded happier or warmer, and their co-writing has an easy, relaxed feel. With the American Southwest surfacing as a repeated theme in such songs as the rollicking “Crime in the Desert” and “The River,” variations in the partnership’s balance keep the album in constant stylistic motion. “In the Backroom,” the irresistible “Been There, Done That” and “Spinning Away” take their cues from three different decades of R&B, while “Lay My Love” and “One Word” follow that same dance-pop arc into the technologized present. Magic.
After his most excellent return to pop with Cale in 1990, Eno pushed his luck with the rhythmic invigoration of Nerve Net, in which vocals play a small role among the (mostly) danceable beats and lively atmospheres. Joined by more people than he’s had on an album of his own in many years — in the eclectic and illustrious company are Fripp, John Paul Jones, Benmont Tench, Robert Quine and Jamie West-Oram, late of the Fixx — Eno demonstrates a facility for clubbable propulsion but doesn’t exude anything like the authority of his ambient work. The elephantine and tuba-shaped “Pierre in Mist” is a marvel of oddly bent noises. “The Roil, The Choke” has a handsomely overdubbed chorus of Enos. Fripp tears the roof off “Distributed Being,” and “My Squelchy Life” uses a raft of (human) speakers to expound on its title. But too many of the tracks daydream through drive time, backsliding fearlessly toward lands Eno has already tilled.
Spinner is an oddity, but a worthy adventure. Having finished a score for Derek Jarman’s posthumously exhibited 1994 film Glitterbug, the meticulous master of treatments and processes gave it to Jah Wobble and let him have a go at the tracks. Serving as remixer, ad hoc rhythm section (with other musicians occasionally adding guitar, percussion, keyboards and vocals) and co-composer on a couple of total overhauls, Wobble — erstwhile Public Image Ltd. bassist/co-director and one of punk’s earliest and most devoted dub proponents — pumped trippy energy and mind-altering weirdness into the project, converting Eno’s cerebral mood music into febrile grooves of artistic integrity and organic strength. Wobble’s seesawing pans and fader fluctuations get gimmicky and distracting by the time “Left Where It Fell” drops the curtain, but most of the music finds a very happy medium between Eno’s stiff-upper-lip artiness and Wobble’s let-it-throb funk.