The Wire MAY 2015 - by Nina Power


Brian Eno's first solo record since 2012 forms part of an artistic endeavour across time and space which includes a series of multichannel 3D installations that first took shape in Stockholm. It comprises two lengthy tracks each around the twenty-minute mark - The Ship and Fickle Sun, the latter of which is divided into three parts, Fickle Sun, The Hour Is Thin and I'm Set Free, the final section being a Velvet Underground cover. The record is sort of about the Titanic and sort of about hubris. It's also sort of about the First World War, industry, nature, the sea, waves and how building bloody great things out of steel that kill people probably isn't a good idea.

It's delightfully ponderous. Eno intones things like "illusion of control" in a deep, declarative voice over the sort of sounds that might play in a massage parlour run by robots. Fickle Sun deepens the paradoxical technophile technocritique, with far-off Geiger counter readings panning from left to right, some percussive trepidations and Eno reverberating about "toil", "the working day", "the dismal work" and "pride and will" in a sort of solemn sermon that makes you feel a bit guilty for ever eating peanuts from a packet on an airplane. Time doesn't march onwards, but down. As he intones over a church organ drone on Fickle Sun: "All the boys are going down / Falling over one by one". Narrating life as a young soldier looking at the sun, all human endeavour is revealed to be pointless. There are shades of the anguished Scott Walker here, though Eno's voice is more gentle and whale-like, vocoded into wise prehistoric acceptance at the futility of work and war, as if Silbury Hill could speak and tell us not to bother with the Iron Age as nothing good will come of it.

With the penultimate section, The Hour Is Thin, the tone changes dramatically. The crisp, arch voice of comedian and actor Peter Serafinowicz intones a story/poem apparently created by feeding "accounts of the sinking of the Titanic, some First World War soldiers songs, various bits of cyber-bureaucracy and warnings about hacking" into a Markov chain generator. Serafinowicz's compelling, rich newsreader voice creates something oddly evocative. Multiple fragments such as "the final famine of a wicked sun and a web that died yesterday" and "the women waving at war" amount to an uneasy metaphysical disharmony. The final lines are oddly moving: "The universe is required / Please notify the sun". The VU cover is another swerve, but again, an effective one, the hazy blurriness perfectly balancing the ambiguous dream of the lines "I'm set free to find a new illusion". We will never escape our own ambitions, the record seems to suggest. Where Eno's own ambitions fit in to this maudlin image of humanity is an open question.