10 Listens APRIL 20, 2011 - by Joe O'Brien


Last October, back when we used to offer quick first impressions of albums before our full 10 Listens reviews, I offered one such first impression of Brian Eno's Small Craft On A Milk Sea. But although I immediately enjoyed the album, after a couple of listens I decided to wait a few months to absorb and appraise it. See, I had a theory about this album. It initially struck me as a very wintry album: icy, barren, desolate, dark, menacing. I figured I should hear it in that kind of climate in order to fully appreciate it.

Then the more I listened, I started to think that maybe this album wasn't merely a "winter" album, but was more like a mood ring: that its colors would change significantly with the temperature. Now I'm not saying this is a particularly original theory, at least when it comes to many other Brian Eno albums (or ambient/electronic albums in general), which are often designed to be Rorschachy enough to assume different properties depending on the setting in which they're experienced. I just thought that this would be extra-specially true of Small Craft On A Milk Sea. And now that I've listened to it in various environments and climates, I think my theory was fairly accurate.

Of course, my not-so-scientific results may very well be some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. But for what it's worth, I was pretty amazed by how much brighter and sweatier this album sounded on a late-afternoon tropical beach, compared to how much more chilling and foreboding it sounded amid those brutal New York City blizzards. What once sounded like starlight twinkling off glaciers later sounded like sunlight glistening off the ocean. What sounded like icicles on frozen pipes at one latitude sounded like boiling swamp bubbles when played at a much wider latitude. The milk sea of Small Craft On A Milk Sea is Arctic tundra snow and white desert sand and liquid nitrogen fog and a thousand substances in between.

It's the album's contradictory constants, however, that make it exceptional. It always sounds tastefully futuristic, yet guided by an intelligence older than the primordial soup. A lot of segments, most notably the curious synth melody of Bone Jump, somehow feel both improvised and meticulously plotted. And while there are a number of memorable melodies like that one, most of the album's hooks come purely from the novelty of its ultra-crisp rhythms and textures. (Even seasoned pros have trouble accomplishing this; see the murkier and less successful first half of Radiohead's The King Of Limbs.)

For the most part, Small Craft On A Milk Sea is also masterfully sequenced. It opens with a trio of minimalist soundscapes inspired by frequent Eno muse Erik Satie (Emerald And Lime, Complex Heaven, Small Craft On A Milk Sea), all of which are gorgeous and serene, yet camouflage a viciousness that gradually reveals itself, creeping ever so slightly from out of the shadows with each track. Then starting with Flint March, the viciousness pounces and strikes and doesn't let up for about six tracks' worth of thrilling panic-level intensity. After that, most of what remains falls back into the more minimal and serene style of the earlier tracks while maintaining their latent tension. Like any worthwhile ambient music, the album's bookends are both easy to ignore and enthralling when focused on.

That is, except for the closing track, Late Anthropocene, which seems to belong to an entirely different album. It's tame, muffled, boringly repetitive, and on an album where most tracks hover around the three-minute mark, its eight minutes seem to last eons. More than once I checked to make sure this track belonged on the proper album and wasn't some bonus track or outtake. Considering how the few tracks before it already do a fine job of soothing the album to a close, I still wonder what on Earth it's doing here.

Without Late Anthropocene, I'd be tempted to say this album is, pound for pound, practically on par with Eno's best - including Another Green World, which is not just my favorite Eno album but one of my favorite recordings by anyone ever. Even so, Small Craft On A Milk Sea continues to captivate me, regardless of time, place or weather, half a year after most reviewers gave it moderate praise and moved on.