The Guardian OCTOBER 28, 2010 - by Tom Ewing


Nobody really expects innovation from Bryan Ferry. Strangely, that means his album works better as mood or background music than Brian Eno's does.

Late-period albums - the records stars make in their fifties and sixties - come with higher expectations than they used to. Records by veterans used to be received in a spirit of, at best, affectionate loyalty. "Return to form" was too loaded a phrase - instead, the new album would be warmly pronounced "the best for a decade" before being filed away and forgotten. The fact of it was more important than the quality.

But the bar has been raised. Some artists found a new voice as they aged, something that defied comparison with their earlier work - Johnny Cash is one obvious example, Bob Dylan another. Others, such as John Cale, have used maturity and security to experiment. If listeners, deep down, still don't really expect an act's twentieth release to be their best, there's a hope that it might at least surprise them.

This autumn sees new releases by Roxy Music founders Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno - both more hotly anticipated than usual. Eno's new record, Small Craft On A Milk Sea, comes out next month on Warp Records, a label with its own mighty heritage. That gives Small Craft a sense of event - something most of Eno's music over the past two decades has worked hard to avoid.

Eno is pop's great collaborator - not just with musicians and artists, but with physical spaces. Many of his recent releases have sprung out of installation soundtracks. In fact, his most popular twenty-first-century art has been his iPhone apps, Bloom and Trope - programs that enlisted the user as collaborator and brought the stuff he's been lecturing on and enthusing about for years to tactile life. Suddenly all that talk about perfumes and generative systems made gorgeous sense. And there are moments on Small Craft when it's impossible not to think about the pooling notes and colour fields of Bloom, and to imagine fingers dancing over a touchscreen.

There are also moments that hammer and clank like a more polite Aphex Twin. It's as if Eno has treated his tenancy with Warp like an installation space in its own right, and made a remix album of his own old work, using some of Warp's releases for cues.

Small Craft is an immersive listen but also a restless one, hovering over ideas for as long as it takes to sketch them out, then jumping to the next. After all, it's the ideas we're listening for, as much as the content: Eno is in the innovator's trap, where even the wonderful execution of an old notion can feel disappointing. And some of its tracks - for example, Complex Heaven, and Emerald And Stone - are quite lovely. Eno can do abstract prettiness better than almost anyone, but he's spent most of the past decade trying to prove that systems can do it better still.

Nobody, on the other hand, really expects innovation from Eno's original collaborator - all Bryan Ferry's records seem like elaborations of a single idea, and we tune in to see how well the mask of weary sophistication still fits. Strangely, that means Olympia works better as mood or background music than Eno's album does. Titles such as Alphaville or Heartache By Numbers are pure Ferry, but while it's as knowing as ever, this is a twilit record, its atmosphere one of ever-encroaching regret. Ferry's voice is now weaker and more querulous and, set in the album's rich, muscular production, he sounds like a Flying Dutchman of the jet set, a spectral presence roaming nightclubs and cities without rest.

Occasionally - when he gives himself lines such as "Your taste is bittersweet / And your Facebook is your home" - this brings to mind the Bryan Ferry the Daily Mail likes to poke envious fun at, he of the younger girlfriends and saloon bar politics. But mostly Olympia is a startlingly compelling record. Like Eno, Ferry has kept fresh by working with others - in his case, maintaining not just a formidable contact book but a parallel career as a cover artist. And his new album's high point is a grand, beautiful version of Song To The Siren, which strips away most of the mysticism of the Tim Buckley and This Mortal Coil readings to leave an old sailor's longing for the rocks. He sounds more vulnerable than he ever has done, and it suits him. Both Ferry's and Eno's records satisfy, but to my surprise its Ferry's that cuts deeper.