INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork DECEMBER 5, 2014 - by Douglas Wolk
BRIAN ENO: NERVE NET / THE SHUTOV ASSEMBLY / NEROLI / THE DROP
Brian Eno had a very busy decade in the 1990s. He worked on U2's Achtung Baby and Zooropa, James' Laid, David Bowie's Outside, and innumerable other records by musicians from around the world. He scored Neil Gaiman's TV series Neverwhere. He wrote the fascinating diary published as A Year (With Swollen Appendices). He published the fourth edition of his brilliant card deck of "worthwhile dilemmas," Oblique Strategies. And, of course, he recorded his greatest hit, one of the most-played compositions of all time: the Windows 95 startup tone.
Somewhere in there, he also released the four solo albums that have now been reissued in expanded editions, with an extra CD appended to each. Well, four and a half: in 1991, My Squelchy Life, his first song-based solo album since 1978's Before And After Science, made it as far as advance promotional cassettes. Then, as he told Audio magazine a few years later, he found out that the album was being pushed back from September to February, and decided to withdraw it and replace it with a newer recording that was more on "the cutting edge... my feeling is that things don't come with intrinsic and timeless value. Where you place them in time, the context they fall in, is what charges them."
The album that replaced My Squelchy Life in the context of 1992 was Nerve Net, which is more obviously a product of its time than any other Eno record. It's roughly half-vocal, half-instrumental, and half-baked. The vocals are generally not Eno's, and mostly spoken; the instrumental tone is cold and brittle (although a couple of Robert Fripp guitar solos briefly light a fire on its surface); the synthesizer tones are the presets of their moment. Ali Click even interpolates the Ashley's Roachclip break made famous by Milli Vanilli, as well as some iffy rapping. Also iffy: What Actually Happened?, a Vocoder-distorted discussion of a rape, paired with a forceful beat. The album's home stretch features two consecutive mixes of the not-up-to-much instrumental Web, totalling over fifteen tedious minutes.
The bonus disc on the reissue, though, is its real draw: My Squelchy Life, Eno's most enjoyable solo album of the '90s by a wide margin. It's only "retrospective" (as he dismissed it) in the sense that it plays to some of the strengths he'd demonstrated earlier in his career, like songwriting and singing. (A couple of its songs were re-edited for Nerve Net, and most of the rest were parcelled out on one release or another over the next few years; this is the first time it's all officially appeared in one place.) Its opening tracks, the dissonant stomp I Fall Up ("I'm sucking the juice from the generator! More volts!") and the slow churn The Harness, are the proclamations of the King of the Weirdos come home to rule again, and for every failed experiment like Tutti Forgetti there's a delightful throwaway like Stiff.
The ten rhythmless, tuneless pieces that make up The Shutov Assembly, also released in 1992 but recorded between 1985 and 1990, are named after places where Eno had done image-and-sound installations - although presenting them outside those contexts also depleted whatever charge they might have had. Eno later described them as sketches for orchestral works: electronically generated tones that acoustic instruments were meant to somehow replicate. They are whooshy, and evaporate as soon as they're over. The bonus disc is seven more pieces from the same era, in the same amorphous vein, although a few of them have some sort of beat; Storm even incorporates what sounds like another Fripp guitar solo.
Eno likes to talk about his interest in perfume, and a scent provided the title of the hour-long, single-track 1993 album Neroli (although he'd already released a four-minute edit of the same piece as Constant Dreams on the 1989 album Textures). At the time, it might have been a riposte to the low-key dance tracks that were being fobbed off as "ambient": as the person who'd more or less invented ambient music, Eno knew well that the point of ambience is that it's just barely perceptible. But the softly echoing pings and plinks of Neroli are instantly overfamiliar; without the famous name on the cover, no one would have given it a second thought. The new reissue pairs it with a previously unreleased hour-long drone piece from 1992, New Space Music, which mostly suggests that Eno had figured out how to hold down keys for a really long time.
1997's The Drop is a set of mostly brief instrumentals - and one very long one, Iced World - in a style Eno referred to as "Unwelcome Jazz" (because, he explained, "most of the people I played them to don't really like them"). They're semi-abstract or "generative" electronic pieces, made with instrumental sounds that already have cultural associations, like piano, early-hip-hop drum machines, and, on Dear World, samples of Eno's own voice. It's not uninteresting to hear once. The extra disc here is a set of The Drop's outtakes and alternate versions, originally sold as a limited edition at a Tokyo exhibition of Eno's 77 Million Paintings.
Eno subsequently recorded a string of limited-edition soundtracks to installation pieces, but his next solo album to see wide release would be 2005's Another Day On Earth. It included the same version of the lovely, slowly pulsing Under that had originally been intended to appear on My Squelchy Life - a song whose "retrospective" character had apparently worn off in the intervening fourteen years.