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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Chicago Tribune APRIL 29, 2016 - by Greg Kot
BRIAN ENO BRINGS ANOTHER WAVE OF INNOVATION WITH 'THE SHIP'
Brian Eno is perhaps best known as producer to the stars (U2, Coldplay, David Bowie, Talking Heads). But as estimable as some of that work has been, quintessential Eno can be found on a long string of less widely celebrated solo and collaborative records dating to the '70s.
Since playing mad scientist to Bryan Ferry's brooding night-crawler on the first two Roxy Music albums (still the peak moments in that band's career), he has gone on to create small masterworks of skewed pop, ambient music and experimental electronica. He's been especially prolific lately, and The Ship (Warp) continues his recent run of creativity, an album that has few direct antecedents in his vast discography and arrives as a late-career landmark.
In his typically thought-provoking liner notes, Eno presents the album as something of a soundtrack to two catastrophic events a century ago: the sinking of the Titanic and World War I. "Humankind seems to teeter between hubris and paranoia," Eno writes, and The Ship captures that anxiety in two extended pieces.
The twenty-one-minute title track is a theater of the mind: sonar blips, harbor bells and human voices weave in and out of a luminous soundscape that evokes an orchestra. Though comparisons might be made to Eno's placid ambient works, the gently lulling layers of synthesizers give way to something more unstable. Eno uses his voice like another instrument. An excellent if underrated singer, he evokes the rumbling low end of Tuvan throat singers and the droning harmonies of medieval monks. As the mighty "unsinkable" ship goes under, words emerge with greater difficulty, as if the shivering, awe-struck narrator were slipping beneath "wave after wave after wave after wave..."
It is followed by the three-part Fickle Sun, a eulogy to the waves of young soldiers left to rot and "turn back to clay" in a muddy Belgian battlefield. Eno's melancholy voice rings out against an ominous backdrop, shattered by spasms of guitar and percussion. Hymn-like vocals seep through more robotic tones and soft sheets of black noise, as if the view has shifted from the mourners to the mourned. The casket closes, the dirt is shoveled and tears fade to black.
A cover of The Velvet Underground's anthemic I'm Set Free closes the album. It's a startling contrast to what has come before, but it's not a gratuitous feel-good coda. In Lou Reed's lyric, Eno finds a moment of clarity that's beautiful and disturbing: "I'm set free to find a new illusion." The cycle of paranoia and hubris rolls on.