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The Guardian APRIL 29, 2016 - by Alexis Petridis
BRIAN ENO: THE SHIP - BOLD EXPERIMENTS OF VARYING SUCCESS
Eno's latest aims to dispense with traditional song structures but is at its most captivating when tending back towards them
Brian Eno's twenty-fifth solo album arrives trailed by a very Enoesque explanation. The latter takes in the sinking of the Titanic, the first world war, The Velvet Underground's third album, an installation in a Copenhagen gallery, Israeli history professor Yuval Harari's acclaimed bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind, and the effect of the ageing process on Eno's voice. It's fascinating stuff, and well worth your time, but if you're in a terrible hurry, the most salient points are: (a) his belief that "humankind seems to teeter between hubris and paranoia - the hubris of our ever-growing power contrasts with the paranoia that we're increasingly under threat"; and, more prosaically, (b) somewhere along the way, he decided to try to write songs that were uncoupled from rhythm and standard verse-chorus structure.
In effect, the latter means attempting to find a path between the two most celebrated aspects of Eno's solo oeuvre, set out on the first albums he released after leaving Roxy Music: the off-kilter songs that filled Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) and the explorations of drifting ambience that began with No Pussyfooting, his 1973 collaboration with Robert Fripp. There's a sense that The Ship's two centrepieces, which together take up almost forty minutes of the album's forty-seven-minute duration, are inverse images of his last vocal album, Another Day On Earth, in 2005. There, he adapted the textures and timbres of his ambient work to fit a song-oriented format; here, he allows songs to slowly unspool in the time-honoured manner of ambient music.
Anyone looking for further precedents for The Ship in Eno's back catalogue might note that the title track's mood sits somewhere between the chilly calm of Music For Airports and the eerie evocations of the Suffolk landscape found on 1982's On Land. Its slowly rolling electronic fog, scattered with a variety of sounds that hint at maritime life - a mournful lowing that could be a ship's horn, a sonar-like blip, clanking that recalls the noise of wind blowing through aluminium rigging, voices that drift in and out of focus as if heard on a radio with bad reception - somehow manages to be both tranquil and unsettling, a pretty compelling combination. But the song element is more problematic. Sung in Eno's newfound lower register, its melody has a vaguely folk-ballad cast, but its repetitiousness borders on monotony. This is presumably intended to evoke the endless cycle between the aforementioned hubris and paranoia - "wave after wave after wave" as the lyrics put it - but even if you grasp the concept, it begins to feel like a distraction from, rather than an integral part of, the music behind it. Eventually, it fades away, to be replaced by a female voice rendered so unintelligible that it's not clear what language she's speaking: anyone seeking light relief from the song's gloomy mood is advised to head online and look at some of the game attempts to work out what's being said..
But if the title track almost works, the eighteen-minute long Fickle Sun (i) is an unqualified success. The most obvious point of comparison for its bleakly captivating soundworld of hissing, grinding electronics, flurries of brass, shifts into near silence and pained vocals isn't anything in Eno's back catalogue, but the recent albums of Scott Walker. (For the benefit of those inclined to storm the exits at the very mention of the former Walker brother's latterday work, it's perhaps worth noting that Fickle Sun (i) is significantly more approachable.)
Moreover, it's hugely effective, sweeping you along from a tense opening, underpinned by sounds that flutter and oscillate like helicopter blades, into a panicky climax - martial blasts of brass and cymbals, squealing synthesiser - before fading into a long coda built from chattering voices and something that sounds not unlike a church organ. For anyone reared on Eno's early-'70s vocals - which tended towards the knowingly arch, or, on 1975's Another Green World, the blank-eyed creepiness of post-breakdown Syd Barrett - there's something a bit startling about hearing him sing in such an impassioned way. But that fervour comes with a distinct twist: the lyrics, an apparently heartfelt meditation on the first world war, were generated by a computer algorithm, something that becomes more apparent when they're being recited by Peter Serafinowicz on Fickle Sun (ii): The Hour Is Thin. You can suddenly hear the words jarring: for all Serafinowicz's pitch-perfect public information film voice, and the loveliness of the piano melody behind it, it feels a bit like letting light in on the magic.