GQ DECEMBER 2010 - by Alexis Petridis


Sometimes a journalist comes up with a description of an artist so acute, so perfectly realised, that it colours your judgement of them for ever more. So it was with Stuart Maconie's dubbing of Brian Eno as Professor Eno, which seemed to fix him in the public imagination as the eggheaded boffin of rock, called upon by U2 and Coldplay to make their music brainier. It was meant affectionately. Maconie is famously a huge Eno fan. He's also referred to him as, "the most important man in pop", and, "the most interesting human being I've ever encountered", which I can happily attest, is what you tend to think after you've interviewed him.

I met Eno a few years back, ostensibly to discuss his new album, and the conversation almost immediately went so wildly, intriguingly off-piste that the interview ended up in the politics section of the Guardian rather than arts. Furthermore, looking around his office, I realised that (a) we were barely scratching the surface of Eno's interests, and (b) my presence in his office was unlikely to constitute the highlight of an otherwise boring week. There was a white board with a to-do list on it: an interview about satire, something mysteriously described only as "From Hydrogen To Emergence" (probably one of his lectures, which have encompassed everything from recording studios to perfume to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity) a lunch with the late Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, lunch with Tom Stoppard... I couldn't imagine he'd be talking much about his new album at any of those either.

So you can see why Stuart Maconie called him Professor Eno - and Professor Eno certainly didn't seem to mind when I asked him about it - but I can't help feeling it's a reductive title, not least because it distracts attention from the actual music he makes: people think of him as a kind of all-purpose boffin rather than a songwriter or musician. He's better known for things you might describe as connected to music - inventing the term "ambient", producing U2 and Coldplay, coming up with the three-second burst of sound that announces you've started up Windows 95 - than for the music he actually makes himself. When people do talk about his records, they tend to discuss them in terms of their pioneering achievements - "inventing" ambient on 1975's Discreet Music, "inventing" sampling on 1981's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts - than what they actually sound like, or whether they're any good or not: it makes them sound like an earnest scientific experiment, something you admire rather than enjoy.

Perhaps that's why most people would be hard-pushed to name a single Brian Eno track. His best-known piece of music is probably the title track of his 1975 album Another Green World, but although TV viewers know it - because it's been the theme of the BBC's arts series Arena for the past thirty-five years - they don't necessarily know what it is: ask most Arena viewers to hum Brian Eno's Another Green World and they'd be stumped. His second - best known piece of music is probably An Ending (Ascent), which has appeared on everything from Red Dwarf to a Liberal Democrat party political broadcast, a thing of such bewitching, melancholy loveliness that when Top Gear played it over footage of Jeremy Clarkson driving an Aston Martin instead of the usual closing theme, internet message boards lit up with the theory that they were sending out a coded message to viewers that they weren't going to make any more programmes. Again, ask what Brian Eno's An Ending (Ascent) sounds like and you're likely to get no more than a shrug.

You could reasonably suggest that's because, like the material on his new album Small Craft On A Milk Sea, both those pieces of music are ambient, and in Eno's own definition of ambient, it's music that's meant to be "easily ignored". Nevertheless, it's hard not to feel he's undervalued as a musician. All great rock'n'pop artists have what Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys famously called an imperial phase, a purple patch when everything they release is amazing, when they can apparently do no wrong. Brian Eno's imperial phase as a recording artist never seems to warrant a mention among the big ones - The Beatles from 1962 to 1969, The Velvet Underground from 1967 to 1970, David Bowie from 1970 to 1980 - which seems a little baffling: from Roxy Music's debut album in 1972 to the release of The Pearl in 1984, Eno never put his name to an album that was anything less than incredible.

Eno made albums full of idiosyncratic, very English-sounding pop songs. If you're never going to get something like 1973's Here Come The Warm Jets confused with the oeuvre of James Blunt, its contents are infinitely less foreboding and more fun than the brainiac image might suggest: there's a lush, melancholy romanticism about the orchestral swoon of On Some Faraway Beach that cries out for someone like Elbow to cover it, while the title track has that least Eno-ish of things, a fantastic guitar riff.

Small Craft On A Milk Sea, meanwhile, continues in a grand tradition of ambient albums that transcend their off-putting experimental status because the end results of those experiments are so emotive and lovely: miles away from the kind of musical soft furnishing that constitutes latter-day chill-out music, Eno's ambient music can feel as if it's changing the temperature of the room in which its playing. There's something frosty and fascinating about the music on The Plateaux Of Mirror or On Land; a cosseting, electric-blanket warmth about Music For Airports. These aren't the academic dabblings of a dilettante who'd rather be off producing Bono or lecturing about hydrogen. They're amazing records that should make the 100 Best Lists but never do, made by someone who should be celebrated as one of Britain's greatest ever pop stars, but never is. You should hear them.