INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Manafonistas APRIL 11, 2016 - by Michael Engelbrecht and Ian McCartney
BRIAN ENO: THE SHIP - A REVIEW AND A STORY
A late summer's night in the distant future. If there is still life, there will still be radio stations! In this case a rebuilt light tower on the lonesome crowded American West Coast, not far from San Diego. In her popular show Off-Centre Adventures Thru Sound, DJ Mireia Moreorless - intelligent of expression, high of heel, intoxicatingly nonchalant of superiority - takes the listener on a stroll through British music history between 1975 and 2020.
In the space of five hours, she plays a lot of classics. A short look at her playlist reveals, amongst other gems:
Talk Talk's Laughing Stock
Scott Walker's Bish Bosch
John Cale's Music For A New Society
PJ Harvey's Let England Shake
Robert Wyatt's Cuckooland
Gavin Bryars' The Sinking Of The Titanic
Rustie's Glass Swords
Brian Eno's The Ship
The Ship got its airplay in the middle of the night, people called that record still "spooky" in 2135, especially Fickle Sun (i). It was the first record she'd ever heard by Brian Eno; her grandfather played it one night, on a soundfile with Gustav Mahler on it. As well as The Dead Kennedys, Squarepusher, Nick Drake, John Lennon, Hamish Imlach, Ivor Cutler, Fugazi, Arvo Pärt, and some East India Youth tracks from his Mojo "album of the year 2020".
SETTING OF THE SCENE
Ah... yes - the opening scene of The Ship. Gently does it. Nothing much happens, an oceanic view, "Music For Dead Harbours", no humans involved, no figures in the landscape. Not yet. Things slowly unfold after minutes - the here and now will maintain the ineluctable quality of the long, faraway gone throughout.
Life - what's left of it - slowly awakens. The Ship drifts further off, with Brian Eno's deep voice, hitting the low C, announcing what's going on, delivering a Sisyphus/Lazarus job giving its best to stand the test of stoicism. This is the rise and the fall and the wash and the fade. The ebb and the flow. Sooner or later other voices will gather around within earshot - via the ether, megahertz radio chatter: ghost voices, disembodied intonations reassuring themselves they are alive. Kicking.
All continuity fractures: a postmodern parody of a Greek choir. A crack-up, a falling apart, in comes Fickle Sun (i), another poorly dimmed world...
"and so the dismal work is done,
the empty eyes, the end begun,
there's no-one rowing anymore...
...abandoned far from any shore."
The tone changes from the first moment on Fickle Sun (i). A tour-de-force without parallel among Eno's works. These seventeen minutes observe everything turn to dust and rubble. If it isn't an unconscious channeling, Eno's full-bodied singing during the opening passage suggests some serious source studies of sea shanties and maritime tavern songs from Northumbria down to East Anglia. Songs from similarly desperate, earthier times.
Eno's voice with all its treatments is a real treat. Here the passionately executed lines have their own colour and discrete shade and shape - at one point like distant cousins of The Unthanks - specialists in contemporary versions of ancient country and sea folk with its perennial cycles of love, hate and disaster.
Ahh, sea songs.
- Worse things happen at sea, Vladimir.
- That is true. But you do know where we are, Estragon, don't you? Yes?
- No, I mean, well... not really. Where are we?
- On the ocean, Estragon. Floating on the ocean. Can't you hear the waves lapping lustily? Nor hear the seagulls squawk-squawking violent regret that no sardines shall be srown into ze sea?
- Yes, Vladimir. Well actually, no. I thought the racket was just louts! But the floor is rolling, and, well, we are standing on what looks like a fo'c'sle.
- Do you remember the Gospels?
- I remember the maps of the Holy Land.
A WIDESCREEN VOID
The sea is a recurring theme in Eno's oeuvre: full of yearning in Julie With..., rich in humour in Backwater, vast and immense in Dunwich Beach, Autumn 1960. Languid, faintly heartbroken, green and luminous in Becalmed. The element of surrender has always been the common thread, but until now this topic hasn't been realised with such bleakness. A starless, bible-black frieze. A widescreen void.
This work suggests the everyday darkness of wartime. And the liminal space where every last breath is a long slow-motion leap onwards toward permanent relief from pain and trauma. And in this liminal space the cup is not broken but is so near to broken that neither 'broken' nor 'unbroken' fully applies. A juncture where language for now, has stopped working, its semantic flow interrupted.
Out of nowhere, in this album of constant losses and sudden appearances, an electric guitar suddenly howls painfully before decaying, at length, into oblivion. Leo Abraham's magic at work. This old instrument is an unexpected guest here (especially with its history and associations. Goosebumps and shock value guaranteed. Christian Fennesz couldn't have done it better here. Nor Edgard Varèse).
Then, into this overwhelming symphonic microcosmos comes the Scott Walker moment - fifty or more more hot shots of brass, da Daa DAAA. Highly effective in its apparent simplicity (and, yes, phonetic approximations are ridiculous when you're trying to describe the way your breath is being taken away here). Think of it as an Ernst Jandl anti-war poem: ta Taaa TAAA. Again&again&again&AGAIN... Crescendo time. Shoot me to the end of night.
After this (the track's climax - in fact the climax of the whole album) the song turns into a highly sensual study of decay, or, more precisely, a mourning: 'All the boys are going down / Falling over to the ground'. If a textbook ever covers the parallels between the works of Gustav Mahler and contemporary music between 1970 and 2020, then Fickle Sun (i) will have an entire chapter devoted to it.
ILLUSION OF CONTROL
Not that we know anything of Eno having a thing for the Austrian composer, but the point's simple - while the likes of Wagner liked to pour on emotionalism and actorly heroics, Mahler lets all the pathos trickle away, the icebergs of grand musical gestures are always being melted down to the textures of wastelands - lost illusions of control.
So does Eno in the closing moments here. Single vocal lines linger. Mumblings of the dying ('...when I was a young soldier...'). But no-one's seeing light on the other side, or angels pulsating in the corners of the frame. There's something in the absence of dancing photons in the peripheral vision. Probably best not try to describe in detail what goes on in the final passage, where the echo chamber of voices takes over - cos it could easily sound like a lysergic acid-submerged moment out of Philip K. Dick novel.
Over the waterfall. That's a simple way of putting it.
THE WEB HAD DIED YESTERDAY
Fickle Sun (ii) is a Speaker's Corner surrounded by a sea of turmoil, disturbance, entropy, weird beauty and unrelenting loss. After two long compositions dealing with the cost of hubris and the solitude of dying, when this track appears it's like an aftershock. All quiet, but the ground still shakes, and the album's central topics bounce around like semantic UFOs in the mind's sky: "...The hour is thin / Trafalgar Square is calm / Birds and cold black dark / The final famine of a wicked sun..."
Spoken by actor Peter Serafinowicz in a voice that defies drama and distance, and accompanied by a delicate, minimal piano figure that knows where to hold breath, the piece sets the listener's mind afloat and wondering - with all its verses, quotes and lines derived from the Markov Chain Generator: "And the web that died yesterday / I was a hard copy version / I turned my eyes directly to hate"
Using a mix of computer-generated chance operations and last refinements of a human being, this "man-machine" is the perfect link between what came before, and what will come after. It's a clearing of thoughts without leading those thoughts in a certain direction. Sharp and short as this track appears, it creates a properly surreal mental space: "Tired of what the world has yet brought forth / With the women wavin' at war".
ROLLING ON THE GROUND
The whole beast is a contemporary lamento of the highest order and ends with a jukebox-song you possibly can't resist to get lost in. Sounds strange? It does. Brian Eno often looks for a resolution, a passage of release, on the final tracks of his works and has done so since Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).
Not being a rule he hasn't broken from time to time (think of Another Day On Earth's frightening finale Bone Bomb, a favourite track of David Bowie), Eno offers a state of momentary bliss with his version of the old Velvet Underground-track I'm Set Free. Bleak existentialism of the original turns into a gospel-tinged, future "evergreen", with swelling strings and singing of the stone melting kind.
After the long and immersive journey this masterpiece (yes, that it is!) has been inviting you to before (a hell of a ride, executed with passion, stoicism and sadness in equal parts, sonically adventurous throughout), one probably is easy prey for this hymn on its way to rock bottom or heaven's saving grace, until the very last, dying note - not overhearing the undercurrent of melancholia:
"...Now I'm set free
I'm set free
I'm set free to find a new illusion..."
The Feint Gunpowder Blue: The feint gunpowder blue of early morning light reflects in her pupils as DJ Mireia Moreorless breathes in deeply and exhales. She's closing her marathon of British old time avant-greats with Robert Wyatt's Sea Song and a twisted tale about a big wave by Ivor Cutler. These nights at the lighthouse radio station are her preferred mode of time travel - but now, under a postmodern California sky, she's just happy to see her cyborg lover Kasumi waiting at the entrance area in a carmesin red Austin Mini Hydrogen. A soft kiss, and Kasumi lets herself smile broadly at the vision in the passenger seat.
Au Pont De Neuilly: Let's pause for a short while here, since you may possibly want a bit more about Mireia. If she's a type, she's the woman you sometimes see on the Paris Metro. She doesn't see you. She's probably on her way to Pont De Neuilly via an interchange to Line 1. Idiots stare at her. But you don't, and don't need to, because her nonchalant superiority shoots like moonbeams in a billion directions, and those moonbeams even in peripheral vision are in themselves a cosmic blessing.
Time Itself Could Escape: The secret is simple - she never realised the world's pedestal for her. Her dad was watchmaker who invented a tourbillon that could counter the effects of gravity so well that time itself could escape its strictures within the space-time continuum. Her mum was a nurse. To her, being a DJ is a humble occupation.
Bullets of Adulation: People fire bullets of adulation her way, all the time. And every single time, they miss. But one day, soon, she will meet her match. And life will move haltingly in the light, for a second, while in another hemisphere stars will fall across the sky in thousands at random, speeding along brief vectors from their origin in a question mark to their destinies in dust and the nothingness that is nowhere and is endless.
Night Flights Over Los Angeles: She first met Kasumi in a supermarket in Carmel, sometime during a week-long early autumn surfing trip. It didn't take long to register. They have so many interests in common - left-field music, jukebox culture, exotic car travels, French cuisine, tantric sex, helicopter night flights over Los Angeles, ghosts, rivers, standing stones, Bakerloo Line moquette, Highland castles, Curly, Larry, Moe, Shemp, lucid dreams, tea, clouds, rain.
Slowcommotion Wilderness: The night's programme of music has been immersive but there's no suggestion of fatigue. Mireia's senses are still in fifth gear. At home, in their tiny beach house, they make love to one another, today in their "slowcommotion wilderness" mode that doesn't involve much movement. Afterwards, Mireia falls asleep almost immediately, and when she wakes up four hours later, she remembers a dream with a wooden jukebox and her grandfaher telling her about when there had been a jukebox revival in the early twenty-first century.
Coq Au Vin: She opens her eyes, and sees Kasumi preparing coq au vin for the evening. After a short swim in the ocean, she moves through the living room and puts a vinyl record on their record player, an ancient "VPI Prime Forward iii" designed by machines in Japan and manufactured by other machines in New Jersey in 2055. She puts on one of her evergreen albums from the era of last night's journeys through old Britannia, Brian Eno's Oblique Collection Of Antique Jukebox Adventures, a big seller in 2019.
Irony Of Fate: That guy who once coined the term ambient music, had his biggest commercial success (irony of fate) with a collection of heart-wrenching, nevertheless strange versions of classic and bizarre pop songs. Eno once had an a capella group (just for the fun of singing), and one of the rules was never to publish any of the things they were doing in the comfortable space of his studio. But then, he gave it a second thought.
Django Rheinhardt: Who covers their covers in glory? Johnny Cash has done it (and brilliantly so in his last years), Bryan Ferry has done it, Patti Smith has done it, Cat Power has done it, Willie Nelson has done it. Kasumi won't. She improvises lyrics to crackly bakelite Django Rheinhardt favourites like Minor Swing and The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise, but only sings them unaccompanied, in the shower. Eno listed songs he liked very much, and focussed on those where he was confident enough to add another unknown layer. And of course the final choice had to suit his way of (very British) singing with slim vocals, and no big paint brush.
801: Mireia looked on the track-list while the first song was playing: a dark ear-candy version of Ray Davies' Rainy Day In June followed by a new version of The Beatles' Tomorrow Never Knows, Eno himself had once sung on Phil Manzanera's 801 Live. A really special collection, including two Everly Brothers classics, The New Vaudeville Band's Winchester Cathedral, Scott Walker's It's Raining Today, Tom Waits' spoken-word piece What's He Building?, and The Doors' People Are Strange.
Denouement: When the Doors song finally appeared, Kasumi appeared. She put her arms around Mireia, and they both sang along with Eno's singing:
"People are strange when you're a stranger
Faces look ugly when you're alone
Women seem wicked when you're unwanted
Streets are uneven, when you're down
When you're strange, faces come out of the rain
When you're strange, no-one remembers your name"