INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
New York Times APRIL 27, 2016 - by Jon Pareles
BRIAN ENO: AMBIENT SOUNDS, BUT POLITICAL, TOO
Brian Eno had no master plan when he started what became his new album, The Ship (Warp). In fact, he wasn't even thinking about an album: just "sound in space," he said in a telephone interview. "You set out to do one thing and you find that you've actually done something else completely different," he said with a laugh. Then he explained the labyrinthine path to making the record, which will be released on Friday.
Mr. Eno, who turns sixty-eight on May 15, has had a prolific and influential career as a producer, songwriter, musician, visual artist and thinker. Along with his own solo albums of songs and instrumentals, he has produced landmark rock albums with Talking Heads, U2 and David Bowie and collaborated extensively lately with dance-music figures like Karl Hyde, from Underworld, and the producer Jon Hopkins. His catalog has something for every attention span. He composed the evocative six-second start-up sound for Windows 95; he is also a pioneer of sustained, nearly motionless ambient music and of computerized video art like 77 Million Paintings, a title that undercounts the number of slowly evolving images it can eventually display.
As usual, Mr. Eno has multiple projects in the works: recordings, lectures, an art gallery show in London and an app that will create what he calls a "truly generative" piece of music. "It will play differently each time you listen to it. It relates to time of day and season as well," he said. "It's a piece that changes its color according to the time."
The Ship pulls together for the first time two persistent threads in Mr. Eno's music. It meshes ambient music and songs with words, in tracks that move amid meditation, disquiet, desolation and uplift. Its cornerstones are two lengthy tracks, far removed from pop songs - The Ship, which runs twenty-one minutes, and the eighteen-minute opening section of a suite called "Fickle Sun."
The album's lyrics arrive in melodies like ritual incantations, and they reflect on journeys and wars. In The Ship, Mr. Eno intones, "A slave to hopes of destiny / Illusion of control." He's alluding, he said, to "the combination of hubris and a complete indifference to the fate of human beings" that led to the sinking of the Titanic and World War I a century ago, and to this century's war in Iraq and financial crisis. He traced them all to the idea of "too big to fail."
"The way the Titanic was the ship that could never sink and the way the First World War was the war that we couldn't possibly lose - this mentality suffused powerful men," he said. "They get this idea that, 'We're unstoppable, so therefore, we'll go ahead and do it. We can so we will.' And they can't."
The album's political ruminations grew out of abstract sound. The Ship started with a commission from a leading Swedish multimedia arts organization, Fylkingen. "They said, 'We've got lots of speakers and lots of amps,'" Mr. Eno recalled. "So I immediately started thinking of some kind of multichannel installation."
He worked up an ambient instrumental, full of hovering tones in the key of C that he placed around the room. Then, one day, he noticed that he could sing a low C he hadn't reached before. The note led him, he said, "to try and make a song over an ambient piece, a song that isn't linked in the normal way to the music, that isn't falling on beats or off-beats, that doesn't have beats, that doesn't have a chord progression of any kind."
"When I started singing with that very low C note, I kept singing 'O' sounds, so it became the word 'rolled.' And because of the way I'd set the sound up, it felt to me like I was in a turbulent ocean of sounds. I had this feeling of being in rolling waves when I was singing, and then I thought, 'It's like I'm in a ship.' But the solemnity of the setting made me think that I was on a ship that wasn't bound anywhere good."
For the sound installation, Mr. Eno assembled the speakers into "columns which look like gravestones from some culture that you haven't quite heard of yet," he said. "A mausoleum of some kind or a cemetery, because the music is very morbid."
The music of The Ship is tolling and elegiac, while Fickle Sun, with lyrics about the "dismal work" of a soldier's life, is in constant metamorphosis. Electronic sounds melt into orchestral upheavals and guitar distortion; voices, natural and synthetic, loom from all directions. It's a rare Eno piece that revolves around contrast rather than homogeneity: "I liked the fact that things happened which you weren't expecting, and they jutted out at you," he said.
The piece ends unresolved, followed by an actor's reciting a poem generated by a computer program over sparse piano notes and, as a soft landing, Mr. Eno's tranquil, richly harmonized remake of I'm Set Free, The Velvet Underground song with a sweetly barbed chorus: "I'm set free to find another illusion."
Time and mortality haunt The Ship. In recent years Mr. Eno has lost friends like Mr. Bowie as well as colleagues and family members. His father-in-law - "a very happy man, a very good man" - who worked as a doctor for the World Health Organization, once said something that stuck with him: "All men die in disappointment."
"I've thought about that a lot," Mr. Eno said. "Is that a male trait, that we constantly construct goals that we can't achieve, or we're disappointed with what we did? No matter how objectively good it might seem, subjectively we think it could have been better. 'I didn't do much with my life,' and all this kind of thing, which of course I'm prone to doing as everybody else is."
Even with his catalog?
"I'm very pleased with some of it," he said. "I'm sort of disappointed as well. I always think, 'Bloody hell, I've wasted so much time. I could have done so much more if I'd only been a little bit more attentive, or worked a little bit harder,' or something. I don't walk around in a state of depression about it, but if ever I think about it, I think I didn't push it quite hard enough. Well, I am working quite hard now, though."
He laughed. "At the age of sixty-seven, I've finally hit my stride."