INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Wall Street Journal APRIL 27, 2016 - by Jim Fusilli
BRIAN ENO: THE SHIP - ON THE WAGES OF MAN'S HUBRIS
This new album is unlike anything else in Brian Eno's twenty-first-century catalog.
The Ship (Warp) continues a productive decade for Brian Eno, one that has seen two solo albums, two more with Underworld's Karl Hyde, one with guitarist Leo Abrahams and keyboardist Jon Hopkins, and a collaboration with poet Rick Holland that produced an EP and a full-length album. This satisfying output ranges from the rhythmic, multicolored funk and rock he made with Mr. Hyde to the continuing exploration of ambient music that he began in the mid-1970s. His recent work reveals he isn't merely busy, but is also expanding his approach to communicating through music. That's evident on The Ship, which is unlike any recording in Mr. Eno's twenty-first-century catalog.
An ambitious yet intimate album that arrives on Friday, The Ship opens with a twenty-one-minute title piece that elicits a cinematic experience with a specific message: In his liner notes, sixty-seven-year-old Mr. Eno cites as inspiration his belief that "the hubris of our ever-growing power contrasts with the paranoia that we're permanently and increasingly under threat." Further stimulus, he adds, was provided by his fascination with World War I and interest in the Titanic, at one time "the apex of human technical power." He focuses on human suffering in vast settings - the blood-soaked fields of Belgium and the desolate North Atlantic Ocean.
Through the application of synthesized orchestral sounds, Mr. Eno and his associate, Peter Chilvers, introduce an unbound world that can be explored in the mind's eye. At about the six-minute mark of the title track, Mr. Eno enters with a droning voice so low it calls to mind throat-singing, intoning a narrative rife with dark imagery. As the music, now more electronic than orchestral, swells and recedes, seemingly disembodied voices in the distance grow nearer; and with a technique not unlike that which he deployed with Mr. Holland on their 2011 collaborations, Mr. Eno's free-floating words and the music merge to unsettle. Ghosts speak in brief phrases: "No, wait." "Come back." "What a waste." "After wave" is repeated many times until the song fades to its end, its former majesty reduced to echoes of horror.
The rest of the album is Fickle Sun, a melancholy three-part suite. In the eighteen-minute opening movement, the narrative theme once again is loss and death in a boundless space. As the electronic music slowly churns, Mr. Eno offers an observation that's also a lament: "The line is long / The line is gray / And humans turning back to clay." With drums beating and cymbals crashing in the distance, he adds: "Now the boats are all astray / There's no one rowing anyway." Organ swells underpin ominous low brass and metallic growls until the somber melody returns and Mr. Eno recites a soldier's tale, his voice morphing into electronic bleats and waves. One line repeats without distortion: "When I was a young soldier..." Staccato chatter darts in the background, and strings sigh in resignation.
Actor Peter Serafinowicz narrates The Hour Is Thin, part two of the Fickle Sun suite, in which Mr. Eno points to steadfast patriotism and the realities of war. Over a piano that cites an earlier motif, Mr. Serafinowicz states: "Tired with what the world has yet brought forth / With the women waving at war and the news that war is faith... / Who did not feel any purpose?" But, he adds, "We waste away our hours and darken beneath the velvet of a strong optimism, Britain's most fateful hours are spun."
Then a surprise: The suite concludes with a reading of I'm Set Free, Lou Reed's 1968 composition for The Velvet Underground. The baroque-rock setting recalls The Velvets as well as moments on Mr. Eno's 2010 album, Small Craft On A Milk Sea, with Messrs. Abrahams and Hopkins, who appear here on the Reed song along with Nell Catchpole, who plays viola and violin. Mr. Eno's take on the song is earnest and sweet, his voice layered into an affecting harmony, a warm organ sound filling the midrange. In the context of The Ship, Reed's lyrics seem to speak of an afterlife: "I've been blinded but now I can see... / I'm set free to find a new illusion." Those who know Mr. Eno's history will recall, upon savoring this rendition, his friendships with Reed and David Bowie, both gone now, though there is no direct allusion to either of them.
In his liner notes, Mr. Eno reports: "This album is a succession of interleaved stories. Some of them I know, some of them I'm discovering now in the making of them." Through the 2010s, Mr. Eno has shared his quest for discovery and communication. Dark to the edge of chilling, bracingly musical and, in the end, tinted with vague optimism, The Ship reflects, and seeks to provoke, profound contemplation. It fortifies Mr. Eno's legacy as it enriches yet another intriguing period in his long career.