INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Sputnik Music MAY 1, 2016 - by Johnny Hunter
BRIAN ENO: THE SHIP
Not fit for water.
It's awkward to review an album like The Ship. For one, should it be a music or an art review? Because the album's as much a conceptual exploration as a musical one and it would be quite easy to churn out five hundred words without ever once mentioning how it sounds. Alternatively, it would be too easy to reduce this review to one of Brian Eno in general, in which case we could forget about the rest, insert an anecdote about him "reclaiming" Duchamp's fountain and hey presto - five stars! Or we could keep this is mind, not think much of the album, and end up uncomfortable in our disappointment. Either one, really.
Like Eno himself, The Ship is very much a twentieth century entity. There are three core ideas to focus on: the relation between our increasing belief in humanity's control over nature and the increasing consequences in being proved otherwise, the general indifference of nature to whatever narrative we include it in, and the impossibility of us treating it much differently. The Ship refers to the Titanic: the unsinkable ship that sunk, and one of a never-ending list of human failures to "conquer" nature. Eno includes WW1 in this list as well, but it's a far less satisfying analogy.
The way these ideas actually sound is expectedly haughty. The album splits to two main pieces, the second is split twice more, where the first attempts to create an aesthetic thinking space and the second is a more direct, emotive response. New for Eno (if there is anything left to be new for Eno) is the scattering of multiple voices throughout the more ambient segments. He seems quite taken by the ship imagery - referring to these voices as "interweaving stories" experienced "Wave. After. Wave. After. Wave." as if writing an undergraduate essay at Central St. Martin's - but it plays out differently.
If we walk through the ambient thinking-space title track, the voices end up being quite distracting. The Ship is a thinking space with someone thinking for me, and it sounds a bit like guided meditation if only new age music was more influenced by early, space-age sci-fi. There's a definite "Music of the Future!" vibe in Eno's choice of background noises, such as what may or may not be (but definitely sounds like) a Theremin, and I can never quite shake off the impression that it's all so horribly cheesy. Add the voices, and their unrelenting seriousness creates an absurdity that suggests Eno is being ironic, if only a tiny bit.
The less said about Fickle Sun (i) the better, because it marks several multiples of eighteen minutes that I'd rather have back. Part two, The Hour Is Thin, is a fairly pleasant bit of spoken word read by Peter Serofinowicz, mostly serving to testify to the marvel of his voice which, in its deep, paternal tones, could get anyone to agree to the value of absolutely anything. The last part is better: a washed-out cover of The Velvet Underground's I'm Set Free that's sadly dragged down somewhat by association with the rest of the album.
As music The Ship is not particularly impressive, especially by Eno's standards. However, I'm not entirely convinced by the artistic concepts here either. His use of Lou Reed's "I'm set free to find a new illusion" is a uniquely twentieth century worry - embedded in a time of mass societal upheaval and aggressively competing narratives. Meanwhile, in 2016, we haven't had any serious counter-culture for decades, are well aware of the futility of trying to escape the human milieu and question the promise of freedom itself rather than its eventual frustration. The Titanic analogy is similarly outdated. Our "conquering" of nature no longer has us constructing goliath machines to subdue it physically but rather reshaping our experienced environment in the advent of the digital. Conceptually and musically The Ship attempts to dissect the experience of 2016 from the perspective of the '70s, so it is no wonder Eno is finding his narratives so illusionary.
It's a shame Eno had to make so much of The Ship's artistic vision. Divorced from pretence and divorced from the rest of the album, his final moments here are enjoyable. The Hour Is Thin invites a kind of comfortable silence, even if it takes itself too seriously. I'm Set Free is the point of interest to take home: violins replace the original symbols and his voice is more detached and reflective than the original, so while it was intended to reflect on The Ship as a whole it can do just as well to reflect on something else. The Velvet Underground, for instance, which turns it into a tasteful and endearingly sweet tribute to one of Eno's most treasured influences.
If we want to take something positive from The Ship, it's best to stop there. Its first two tracks take up thirty-nine minutes of the album's total forty-seven but pass out of memory almost before they're finished. It is as if they are so rooted in the past that they struggle to occupy space in the present, and for them to claim to speak for the here and now is more bewildering than they're worth. Far better to focus on The Ship's more digestible stern.