Variant WINTER/SPRING 1993 - by Peter Suchin


From quite early on I've always made this issue about contemporary music being something that actually anyone could do. You know, in the past... to be involved in music required actual physical skills. It really doesn't now. What it does require is judgement, and judgement certainly seems to most people like something that's easy to cultivate as opposed to skills. I don't think it is actually... I think there are just as many difficulties in that. - Brian Eno (extracted from The Thing Is... An Interview with Brian Eno, Channel 4 TV, Wednesday, May 13, 1992).

Printed on the insert of Brian Eno's latest release is a list of thirty short, semi-ironic summaries of the recording itself. It is variously described as, amongst other things, 'a self-contradictory mess', 'frenetic', 'like paella', 'reckless', 'squelchy', 'technically naive', 'bluff', both 'too much' and 'not enough' and 'clearly the work of a mind in distress'. The other terms in this little kit of ready-made critical descriptions are equally diverse but many border upon the (apparently) self-damning or self-dismissive. It's a curious list but one whose presence suggests a sharp awareness of the predictability of rock criticism. Notwithstanding his cult status as experimental composer, record producer, video artist, pioneer of serious environmental music, lecturer and implicit critic of the genres of rock and pop. Eno has often been attacked for what is seen as his all-too-theoretical approach to music making.

Rock criticism, deeply indexed as it is to the fast-turnover world of fashion and to the 'philosophy' of the commodity cannot allow itself the kind of reflexive stance that one often finds in the spheres of, say, literature and the visual arts. Even when critics praise Eno, as they often do, it's more for his ebullience, his articulate presentations of his ideas and for his commitment to a plenitude of interesting and unorthodox ventures rather than for his actual music. Journalists always seem to be trying to say that Eno's music can't really be all that good because he's an intellectual. It's the old art-world cliché that you can't be a 'proper' artist if you read books and actually stop every now and then to think carefully about the thing you are making. If Eno feels that it's necessary to supply the listener with a range of optional readings of the record then perhaps we should consider this device as one designed to disturb, no matter how tentatively, the blasé, intellectually tepid interpretations so often offered as 'criticism' by the conventional pop press.

It might be argued that Eno is an easy target since neither he nor his music fit neatly into orthodox categories. He's been called a dilettante, a term that implies the practices of an amateur rather than the serious status conferred by the word 'professional'. But an amateur is someone who partakes in an activity for its own sake, for the love of being engaged in the task at hand. Eno gives being an amateur a good name. He's clearly committed to a plethora of experimental, optimistic approaches to music making. One of the claims he's frequently made in the many interviews he's given over the past fifteen or so years is that the modern recording studio is a place in which it is possible for virtually anyone to make music. Pop music, whatever else it is the result of, owes a great deal to developments in sound recording technology, and, indeed, to developments within the area of musical instrument design itself. The effects of such technological changes are considerable, allowing the erstwhile amateur musician or 'non-musician' (Eno's own term) to attain the status of that of professional.

There's something potentially radical in this breakdown between expert and non-expert but there is also inscribed in this cultural shift something like the conditions that have led to a widespread musical mediocrity. Pop music is frequently the site of banality and crudeness of thought. It isn't so much a question of musical proficiency but one rather of judgement, as Eno himself suggests in the passage cited above.

Eno's new record is then an impressive exercise in cultural judgement. Nerve Net is a curious accumulation of twelve (often jazzy) tracks, forming as a whole a sort of library or compendium of dizzy rhythms, fast, neat beats and sharp, synthetic speculations as to what form a multicultural, ultra-modern dance record might take. There's a type of democracy implicit in the multiplicity of ethnic traces, borrowed voices and wide diversity of musicians employed in the making of the record. Eno sings or speaks on only five of the tracks. Other voices are found floating in and out throughout a number of the pieces, notably within My Squelchy Life, in which a central passage of assembled voice fragments forms a discreetly eerie, enigmatic mood. Ali Click has Eno blandly reciting blunt rhymes ('Jolly Roger in a pickup has a packet on the horses / He's a docker with a bucket just the ticket in a thicket...'), phrasing his lines in a manner reminiscent of the vocal performances of the earlier Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). The drawn out construction of the 'Lascaux Mix' version of Web calls to mind the records Eno made in the late '70s with the German band Cluster, whilst the harsh but carefully integrated elements of Web proper raise memories of the metallic complexities of mid-period King Crimson (Robert Fripp's presence here, as elsewhere on the album should be noted). If the skilful instrumentation found throughout this record is often supplied by the guest musicians it is nevertheless Eno's sophisticated editing, his openness to the productive clashing of musical categories, and his entirely user-friendly reflexivity that give this recording its biting, brittle and decidedly memorable edge.