INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Wire DECEMBER 2010 - by Ian Penman
BRIAN ENO: SMALL CRAFT ON A MILK SEA
The mischief, eros and humour of the real Eno is expunged from his first solo release in five years.
To be honest, right now at this minute I would rather write about almost anything than this Eno CD: Richard Pryor, Richard Skelton, the riots in France, cat psychology, Stephen J Cannell, Richard A Ingram, pseudonyms, procrastination, Lily Tomlin, Lilly Allen, Baudrillard's ghost, you name it. I'd even rather write about Brian Eno, which is what I've been doing the past few weeks (you wouldn't believe the mountain of notes I've accrued, enough for a small book) than try for the nth time to find some interesting way of writing about this crushingly dull new Brian Eno CD.
This may be the first solo Eno work that is entirely without interest. It is bafflingly below par. Start with that wincingly twee title, so icky and precious it sounds like some high-scorn Young British Artist parody of a previous art era's solipsistic formalism. I dunno really: what IS it? Eno's idea of a joke? Some personal code or anagram? A joke about the dangers of self parody? And is it possible for anyone but Eno to care?
We know he likes a joke - we know that in private he's a funny man. We know he likes laughter, friendship, sex; we know he's managed to stay wide open in his extracurricular listening and that whenever he talks or writes about music (especially so-called World musics) he's more interesting - will have a more interestingly askew take - than eighty-nine-point-nine per cent of professional music writers. We know he's an angry man, an articulate man. An unashamedly postmodern man. But something happens when he gets in the studio these days to work on solo music and all the interesting stuff about Eno, all the stuff that used to be diverting and exciting and subversive, just seems to go AWOL; like he has built a special little machine in his safe little studio for just that purpose, so that not even the merest accidental traces of it remain. Little Graft With Milky Tea (I just can't type the title, I can't) is the sort of hi-tone music that happily exploits the rumour, the notion, the veneer of Improv or aleatory music, but whose end product is scrape free, cocooned in prettiness, smoothness, control. Can he tell the difference any longer between corporate work and personal expression? Or is it all one long fuzzy, tastefully patterned loop, from which he trims discreet, manageable lengths?
Mall Gift In Silk Wrapping doesn't even have the virtue of being terrible, or boring. If it broached the sublime shadowlands of Boring it might not be so bad. In the past, hasn't Eno proven himself the master of seeding sublime treats inside long (apparently) arid stretches? Forcing us to bobble in his aether, space out inside his flotation tank, making us understand the logic of long stretches in which not very much happens, until something weird begins to happen at the edges of perception, a logic of the valuable peripheries rather than the over-valued centre. But throughout Small Mink Dad At Sea he hardly lets things start to settle in before he snaps them off dead: most of the fifteen tracks tinkle or hum a bit, bristle, murmur, and then, just when they might begin to eddy into us with a whorl of compelling drift, repetition or meander, might work further into or out of themselves, they just kind of shrug and stop at two or three minutes. Leaving the thinnest of aftertastes. It's like the sonic equivalent of a posh paint chart or curtain sample book. Discreet anti-stress tones for the well-appointed Notting Hill urbanite. Even the titles make it sound like that: Emerald And Stone, Flint March, Calcium Needles.
Eno is not a dumb guy. Does he not know that, in 2010, the bar has been raised - in terms of both quantity and quality - as far as anything Ambient/Drone/Imaginary Soundtrack related goes? In other words, is it merely the result of myopic laziness, or of overly diversified priorities (in other words, straightforward CD-making isn't what really interests or excites him any more)? Or is it something more on the level of a kind of politely veiled dishonesty - for if the real Eno were to really make music about his real thoughts and drives and emotions (an Eno who is, as we know, in real life, full of mischief, eros, humour, anger, politics, politicking, who is wide open to new sounds and musics) it would surely be a world or two removed from this... this... overly polite, formulaic, neat-freak suite of instrumental bits and pieces, things that appear to have no real need to exist.
Can this really be the same man who gave us The Bogus Man and RAF - as a throwaway B side, yet! - and the Obscure label and half of Low and No New York and On Land and Miles's He Loved Him Madly as one of his Desert Island Discs? Maybe Eno is the Keith Richards of Ambient! Fundamentally English, lovably quirky, a quotable gift for harried journos: someone who has sustained his myth - and our interest - for over thirty years now with cute Q&As, zippy interviews, careful image management... and practically zero memorable new music. Let's face it: anything of Eno's you would want to take to a Desert Island yourself was almost certainly produced between 1972 and 1982.
For a much ballyhooed solo project, this is a work that sounds like off-day outtakes. The only things I remember are the vague outline of the two or three Nerve Net-ish ones, where things speed up a bit and he does his patented Eno Mode 2 thing, 'plastic space jazz' or 'fake fonk skronk' or whatever he's calling it this season, like uninspired imitations of uninspired Autechre re-treads. Even here, the only texturally notable thing is the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel, how knotted tight these tracks are, with absolutely no sonic breathing space anywhere. There are also a couple of acutely embarrassing Watch Out Kids Here's Some Heavy Rawk Guitar! moments, riffs presumably supplied by one of Eno's two collaborators, Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams. Think back to something like Another Green World - such a quiet recessive little dark pool of an album, but in its own quiet way revolutionary: had anyone ever done stuff like The Big Ship or In Dark Trees before? (Ah - it's starting! I'm about to detour off into how much I love Another Green World, because this new one dopes me into a state of complete mental blankness.)
Ah, well. Maybe it's some cunning new Eno strategy, and he'll come out with a lullingly characteristic thought-byte lecture on it sometime soon: NON MEMORABLE MUSIC. Like ready meals you eat and forget. Sorry - who were we talking about?