For an entire decade, between 1975 and 1985, Brian Eno could do no wrong. In fact, even for the four or five years before 1975 he could do no wrong. If you consider the first two Roxy Music albums to be part of his legacy (it’s hard to overstate the mark he made on what I consider the very best album by Roxy Music, their second album, For Your Pleasure), he did no wrong. If you consider the Portsmouth Sinfonia part of his legacy (although it also gracefully sits on the balance sheet of the excellent Gavin Bryars), he did no wrong. But between 1975 and 1985 there was never a misstep of any kind. When he made an album of songs it was as new and strange as anything being made at the time (I can only speak of Another Green World, his album from 1975, in the tones reserved for masterpiece, I can only speak of it the way I speak of a yardstick against which to measure other things, I can only speak of it with a perfect satisfaction that it exists, because what with the great mediocrity of things out there I am often demoralized and disappointed, but then I remember that I could, if needed, go and listen again to Another Green World), when he made abstract albums, like his collaboration with Robert Fripp, No Pussyfooting, or his ambitious and perfect Discreet Music, he broke ground and anticipated developments (looping, for example) that were not to be popular for another generation, and when he produced or collaborated on popular music he made albums that were among the very greatest rock and roll albums ever made (Low, “Heroes,” Remain in Light, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!, The Unforgettable Fire).
And that’s not to mention Music For Airports (1978). It’s difficult to talk about Music For Airports, because it’s like trying to describe the sky, and trying to describe the sky is difficult because the sky is always there and its envelopment is beyond where language can profitably transport us, and then again it is difficult to describe the sky because which sky are you going to attempt to describe, and the one always shades into the other, if, in fact, you can use the word shade to describe what the sky does, and I have been listening to Music For Airports for so long and in so many contexts and with such unspeakable devotion to it that I can’t really tease apart the impressions and I can’t find a way to detail my loyalty to it, in all of its manifestations, in all of the situations in which I have been devoted to it, and if it had been Eno’s only album, and even if there were not an abundance of writing to describe the great reward of listening to Music For Airports, I would still be certain that it was among the very finest recordings of music ever made, and when I say this, I say this without respect to genre, I would stack Music For Airports up against Glenn Gould and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Colin Turnbull’s recording of those pygmies and Alan Lomax, and all of that. Music For Airports makes the world a finer place, makes the people in it more palatable, and we really should launch it out into space and prove to the people on those distant planetoids that we are not just warlike simians bent on auto-destruction.
For the purposes of this essay, my hypothesis is: Eno had a Sweet Spot. And in addition to his appearance of unvarying confidence, his track record, his ability to pick collaborators well, his knack for understanding what might happen next, he had history on his side in those early years. This is the ineffable quality of the Sweet Spot. It somehow coheres with what history requires. There’s the inevitable feeling about artistic accomplishment when it happens in its appropriate historical epoch. There is inevitability. This has something to do with whichever artist you are talking about, but also has to do with how history happens—in fits and starts. History and artistic merit meet and fall into some adolescent love and death embrace, and it seems as they were always meant to be married together in this way, even if it’s the individual talent that appears to be somehow possessed of mystical perfection. The individual talent gets the credit. History effaces its role in this, at least until history, that fickle thing, turns its attention elsewhere. The Sweet Spot is the Rolling Stones on Exile on Main Street. Everyone agrees it’s a masterpiece, but is it really a better album than, say, Let It Bleed? It was the right album for the moment. As was Some Girls a few years later. Exile sounds exactly right for its moment (1972). Some Girls sounds right for its moment (1975). Pet Sounds is right for its moment. London Calling is right for its moment. Loaded, by the Velvet Underground, sounds right for its moment. In some of these cases, the work under scrutiny is so excellent that you would have a hard time saying the reputation of the work is owing to anything other than its excellence. But excellence also has to do with cultural history, the history of technology, and so on. Thriller, to my ears, is a frequently boring album, but its smooth and perfect arrangements caught something of 1983 as no other album seemed to be able to do. Hotel California seems to me utterly dreadful, excepting that guitar solo at the end of the title track, and yet is any other record as suggestive about American culture at the time? History is what people need to hear, and when they need to hear it, they need to hear it enough that they are willing to revise their aesthetic standards to cohere with the juggernaut of historical necessity.
The nearly instantaneous dissolution of The Clash after their finest work is, in a way, a merciless example of this politics of the Sweet Spot. From London Calling through Sandinista!, the Clash were so far ahead of their peers, they were so adept at hearing what was going to happen, as opposed to what was happening, that it was hard to think of them as anything but supremely gifted oracles. But then there was the precipitous falling off of Combat Rock, with its mere covering of the bases, its slightly warmed over funk, and its leftover bits of glam, and suddenly they sounded tired, dissolute, perhaps drug addled, even worried, and then they were gone. Which led some listeners (me, at least) to go back and listen to what came before. And what came before (especially if you’ve heard the expanded edition of London Calling) was not always as perfect as we’d been led to believe. Great lyrics, I will agree, but not necessarily the pinnacle of creativity, in the musical department, that you might have imagined was there when you first heard the album. The Sweet Spot meant that some of the cannabis-enhanced qualities of Sandinista! do not quite now seem like the visionary white-musician refraction of Lee “Scratch” Perry that we thought they were then.
Or: sometimes things fall out of fashion simply because history (or technology) has moved on, and there’s almost nothing the musician can do, again, to reacquire the reputation from which he or she has been sundered. Think of David Bowie, after Let’s Dance. For a solid decade, he could do nothing, not a thing, to redeem himself, through the Tin Machine period, through the Buddha of Suburbia period, right up through Outside. Not until Heathen did people again pay any attention, though there was no shortage of good music in that lost decade. Sometimes there’s a snowballing effect after the Sweet Spot, and a loss of confidence goes with the loss of attention, and the artist casts about in a sort of desperate way. Lou Reed had a long spell after Coney Island Baby where he made almost nothing remarkable, until The Blue Mask, and then, after couple of reasonably good albums (mostly good because of the presence of lead guitar player Robert Quine), he went back to making music that was, in my view, not terribly interesting. Recently, freed from all historical concern, Reed has been making a lot of abstract instrumental music, not even bothering about the songs, and that has been interesting, because here he appears to be utterly post-historical and therefore free. (And yet one only has to listen to the single, for example, from the Lou Reed/Metallica album, already derided as one of the worst songs ever committed to tape to see how brutal the exile after the Sweet Spot can sometimes be.) Paul Simon between Still Crazy After All These Years (1975) and Graceland (1986). David Byrne for much of his solo career. The B-52s after Whammy! George Harrison after Living In the Material World. Joni Mitchell after Mingus. It is merciless out there, in the cold, where they give you no budget to make your recordings, and yet you are expected to sound as you once might have sounded when you had record company support, when you played with the finest musicians in the world. Now you are relegated to making records entirely on your own.
What, therefore, of Eno after the Sweet Spot? He certainly went on to produce more successful and highly profitable albums, up to and including what I think of as one of the most unlistenable bands of the present moment, Coldplay, whom he has nonetheless managed to make more textural and thoughtful than they deserve to be. These productions are likely highly remunerative, and are enough to insure that Eno’s more adventurous artistic activities of economically secure. But of Eno’s own albums there have appeared to be more missteps than we hitherto imagined, which is to say it’s possible that there have been missteps since 1985 or 1986, as opposed to the decade prior in which mistakes were none. But is this really the case?
I for one love everything up to The Shutov Assembly (1992), an album of highly abstract pieces made for a Russian artist friend. The sounds on Shutov incorporate some more dissonant harmonies, and a lot of music that is frankly ominous, an approach that is certainly at variance with the ambient period that preceded it. Shutov seems to be one of the first of the Eno albums to abundantly feature digital synthesizer, perhaps the Yamaha DX7, or the DX11, which were really good on bell tones, much favored by the later Eno. Moreover, the album, like many of Eno’s most adventurous pursuits, was made entirely by the artist. And much of it may have been fashioned for sound and video installations for Eno’s sideline as a fine artist (for which, he was, in fact, trained in college). The same is true of the very lovely Thursday Afternoon (1986), which is a musical piece that dates to one an earlier video work (of the same name,1984). Again, Thursday Afternoon, to me is highly listenable, if totally abstract, and it follows upon the ambient series (which includes not only Music For Airports, but some albums he produced for Harold Budd and Laraaji, as well as his own On Land, an album I love very nearly as much as Music For Airports), and has something in common with those abstract albums in that you can enter in Thursday Afternoon anywhere, at any point in its course, and have a musical experience, in the same way that you can do so with Cage, or with Morton Feldman, or with La Monte Young.
Meanwhile, something rather monumental happened during the later eighties, and it should be obvious. Eno had stopped singing. After Before and After Science, in 1977, Eno didn’t sing in public at all, throughout the high ambient period, feeling, apparently, that the figure/ground problem in the popular song was somehow non-negotiable for him—the way in which the lyrics were always considered the foreground—perhaps because he had exhausted his lyrical approach, which involved a lot of randomness, nonsense-singing, anagrams, and the like. And yet toward the end of the decade, he tried to make an album of songs again, which was to be called, as I understand it, My Squelchy Life, and this album didn’t find favor with the record companies, or so it is said, and he was sent back to the drawing board, which resulted in a mostly instrumental album, Nerve Net, which was percussion heavy in ways that are somewhat surprising to longtime fans. Some of the Squelchy Life tracks made it onto Nerve Net in a different forms, and some were later to be heard on the Eno vocal box set (a work that I was so obsessed with obtaining, back when it was very hard to get in the United States, that I made use of a trip to England to procure a copy). Nerve Net was a louder, less tuneful, and slightly aggressive album, one that had very little of the gentle, meditative, and paradoxically tender electronic music that Eno had been making for about five years. This likely by design.