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.
What had history been doing in the intervening five years? History had been catching up with Eno. By the late eighties, the looping apparatus that Eno (and Robert Fripp, his occasional collaborator) had contrived had become easy to duplicate, not only on sampling keyboards, but, eventually, on computer. A procedural idea that Eno had imprinted with his own musical identity, and with very thorough procedural cautions (Eno played a lot of the loops manually, so that there would always be rhythmical imprecisions and/or legato moments), had become available to musical culture as a whole. Anyone, it turned out, could work with loops. The most transparent example of this ubiquity is to be found on an album that Eno has not marked for disfavor publicly, but which, if I were him, I would have found rather troubling, namely Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume Two (1994).
I liked the Aphex Twin album when it happened, because it had a spooky, simple and accessible electronic quality, with lots and lots of echo and reverb, studio effects that Eno had used liberally without, however, seeming overeliant. Aphex Twin sounded like little that was happening at the time, and, in fact, it didn’t even sound like Aphex Twin, who had, on his prior releases (some of which were not attributed to Aphex Twin at all), sounded more like hardcore dance music of various subgenres. Acid house, for example. But Selected Ambient Works, Volume Two sounded nothing like these recordings, and nothing like the indie rock of the period, which seemed to me to be at a sort of dead end just then. Aphex Twin, and all that came after, had a gigantic influence on rave culture, and on British culture generally, but it is, in many ways unthinkable, without the model of Brian Eno.
After all: the word ambient was Eno’s word to describe the genre in which Music For Airports fell. And when Richard James, of Aphex Twin, employed the word in his album titles (there were two volumes of Selected Ambient Works), it was Eno from whom he was borrowing. However, there were significant differences of approach. Because Aphex Twin was heavily indebted to sequencing, and, ultimately, to computer processing, he made a habit, a fetish even, out of looping, and therefore, even in the compositions of Selected Ambient Works, Volume Two, he made a habit of rigid, unfeeling meter. Whereas Eno played as many of the loops as he was able to play, with the inconsistencies of the player becoming part of the piece, Aphex Twin has a more machined approach. Because the textures were so ghostly and strange, especially the little bits of voice (in “Cliff,” e.g.), and the drones in the backdrop of the piece, and because there was nothing else that sounded exactly like this in 1994, some listeners, myself among them, could be forgiven for feeling that the Aphex Twin project had some novelty about it, rather than simply amounting to a slightly repetitious deracination of something more subtle that had happened before. The chord progressions were kind of infantile. The harmonic ideas were kind of obvious. The music, that is, was kind of obvious. There was just less of it than on most compilations of dance music.
The thing the ambient Eno did with Music For Airports was to make music that was non-narrative in ways that were refreshing and unusual, especially in a popular music context. Eno’s models were Cardew, Cage, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, composers who were world-famous in the rather refined area of new experimental music, but who didn’t always have that much in common with the pop music world. Music For Airports, in its resistance to narrative, did something for pop music that had rarely been done. It was music that didn’t accumulate, and wasn’t any more dramatic in one moment than in any other moment. There were no wasted spots, any ligamentary passages. It just was. But what Aphex Twin thought about ambient music was simply that it was quiet. He didn’t really get the non-narrativity, or the way acoustic instruments were made to seem electronic on Music For Airports, or how much actual playing was involved (this was made even more apparent on the especially wonderful Bang On A Can live recording of Music For Airports). Aphex Twin seemed to get none of this, and he certainly didn’t get the “not enough Africa” remark that Eno made about looped dance music, that it didn’t have the joyous rhythmical playing together quality that made African music great, and which made soul, R&B, and even disco, great, too. Aphex Twin, and the great majority of European electronic dance music that came after him, missed most of this.
And yet: Eno had to fight against this part of his own legacy. In the nineties you could feel him doing it. On the one hand, he was fighting off looped electronic dance music that the yobs would listen to while dancing to ecstasy and claiming to have great insight into love. The music with the four-on-the-floor Linn drum beat. One way that Eno responded to this problem was to have a fair amount of live drumming (and he reached his apex in his collaboration with Peter Schwalm, Drawn From Life, which featured not only drums, but orchestral strings), and by turning over fairly ambient recordings to rhythm sections of various kinds (see Spinner, the album he made with Jah Wobble). Eno, that is, ratified the acoustic drum, and group playing, at the moment when everything was becoming synthesized percussion.
Meanwhile, there was New Age music happening, at the other extreme from Aphex Twin and European rave. This New Age music also borrowed from the perceived quietness of Music For Airports, and from the environmental and field recordings that sat in the backdrop of On Land, the last of Eno’s self-designated ambient albums. While Eno didn’t himself spawn the music that is now universally employed in day spas when the massage therapist comes around, that music does, in fact, plunder some of his ideas, the ideas that generated some of the finest electronic music of the late seventies and early eighties. Eno, rightly, recoiled from this particular brand of New Age, from this part of his legacy, as well. His albums from the nineties, therefore, listed particularly close to certain industrial sounds (Nerve Net, 1992, and, on The Drop, 1997) to something like jazz.
By jazz, what could we possibly mean have? Not what Louis Armstrong was doing? Not what Fats Waller was doing? Both Nerve Net and The Drop, arguably the two hardest-to-like albums in all of Eno’s output, have harmonic vocabularies that strain against the major chords and relative minors of the pop song vocabulary, and while they are not rich in classical jazz accidentals, they incline toward suspended melodies (this is true even of Neroli, his extremely minimal electronic composition from the same period), and kinds of irresolution, and sophisticated melodic ideas, and which in fact do have some of the late night melancholy of certain early jazz recordings. Eno has mentioned prominently in interviews the way that certain Teo Macero productions were important to him, and the album, to me, that sounds most like The Drop, is Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way, by Miles Davis, in which there is space everywhere. Indeed, it’s hard not to see In a Silent Way, despite its rich jazz flavor, as a valuable precursor not only of the Eno of the minimal period, but of Eno’s space jazz compositions as a whole.
Eno, in the ’90s, was not particularly historically acceptable, he was out of fashion, though there were many who still found the work of the prior decades important, even crucial, and in this post-historical period he allied himself with the most rarified of popular musics, jazz, the loss leader as far as popular music. Eno responded to his year outside with the same verve that he always faced creative problems, by heading off in completely singular directions, and best for me, between 1995 and 2011, were Eno’s recordings from his sound installations. These were never commercially released, and that is the fault of the record labels, because the sound installations were amazing, are amazing, especially considering that the recordings were always completely provisional. That is, since a lot of Eno’s sound installations involved random musical events happening when different speakers fell in and out of phase with one another, any recording was only of a particular event, not all possible events. I Dormienti, from a 1999 installation, is particularly gorgeous in this way, but so is the subsequent Kite Stories. Indeed, in the sound installations, Eno, liberated from the need to make fiscally acceptable album releases fashioned his most coherent releases in this entire period, and the artist contained there is at complete liberty. All these albums are stunning, and they are only available from enoshop.co.uk, so we can presume that the royalty rate is a lot better for the artist, and so maybe, from a fiscal point of view, Eno was rather canny after all. In the new millennium, orthodox album releases, where he is presumably getting fucked by the record company to the usual degree, are no longer as singularly creative as the Opal Records-released projects, that is, the things being released by Eno himself. It must be a rewarding thing to arrive at the moment when you can just make the music you want to make, or, rather, to allow the music that you want to hear to breathe itself into life, and to spin this work out in a way that challenges the traditional record company.
That said, Eno seems, somehow, still to want the mantle of success that might result from a perfectly deployed album of songs, or perhaps he simply wants to sing some more (and he does, apparently, sing in an avocational choir these days, one noteworthy for its lack of ambition to record or perform), and thus in the new decade, despite the fact that there was Kite Stories and Lightness and I Dormienti and many other self-released projects, Eno finally decided to make another album with words. In fact, he made two albums with words in rapid succession, the first an album on which he sang for himself, Another Day on Earth, and then his album with David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. These albums are very different from the high period of Eno’s vocal releases (which would seem to be the years of Another Green World and Before and After Science), and they are far more about melody than you would suspect. In fact, it appears that Eno’s occasional preoccupation with songcraft, at least recently, has two aspects to it, and the first of these is the attempt to demonstrate that, evidence notwithstanding, he is not simply an artist of timbre or of the recording studio, though these are often skills associated with him, he is also a fine composer of melodies. “How Many Worlds,” from Another Day on Earth is an example of this phenomenon. It starts with a pretty, singable melody and a very simple piano part. Almost a music hall melody, or a children’s lullaby, which soon has the stacked harmony parts that Eno favors when he sings (I have heard that he has perfect pitch, and the ease of the harmonies suggests as much). The song proceeds through two verses, without a chorus, until a middle section develops, with synthesizer and strings, free of vocals, this beginning at about 1:30, and running nearly three minutes! Three minutes! No pop song is structured this way! The verses followed by three minutes of an instrumental bridge! But what’s best about this instrumental section is that the string arrangement is absolutely sublime. The trick with Eno songs, as opposed to Eno instrumental compositions, is how they express drama and color with the inevitable appearance of minor chords, because he’s a guy who does like a major triad, and yet one who also knows how to be mournful, and in fact this is the secret for me with almost all of Eno, is that despite his reliance on electronic textures, he is also full of pathos, and “How Many Worlds,” by the time it comes back to its lullaby section, at 4:11, is really sad, really moving. And the same is true of many of the songs on Another Day on Earth.
The collaboration with David Byrne has some similar intentions, but the situation is muddied by the presence of David Byrne. For one thing, Byrne’s voice is so recognizable, and so associated with certain ways of working, that it’s hard not to find him, much of the time, a little bit funny, a little bit ironic, though irony is a mood that has long since been purged from the Eno canon. Moreover, there is Byrne’s lyric writing (he wrote all of the words on Everything That Happens). I cannot, in good conscience, admit to liking without reservations a Byrne lyric since Speaking In Tongues, by the Talking Heads. In fact, though I admire David Byrne as an artist and a person, I cannot admit to liking a Byrne album without reservation since Speaking In Tongues. I am, it is fair to say, a jilted lover where the Talking Heads are concerned. I lived and breathed the Talking Heads for about five years of my life, and I suppose I would say that Fear of Music and Remain In Light are two of the greatest rock and roll albums ever made. I grew up with a fierce attachment to that music.
That Eno and Byrne decided in 2007 (or so), to make another collaborative album (their first, in 1981, was the exceptional My Life In the Bush of Ghosts), seems strange to me. Especially because they made an album without the experimental apparatus that made their first album so exceptional (it consists entirely of “found” vocals, bits of preachers and exorcists and salesmen found on the radio and elsewhere), or, rather, that they wanted to make an album of “songs,” though neither of them, any longer, is well-known as a writer of songs. The main issue, and it is the issue on both of these albums of songs, Another Day on Earth and Everything that Happens, is the words. Eno himself has addressed the topic directly: the thorniest problem in contemporary music, according to his remarks, is the problem of words. Another way of putting it: if you’re going to sing about something, you had better have something to say. When Eno helped with the production of the next-to-last Paul Simon album, Surprise (2006), he solved the problem by working with one of the most great deployers of words in a pop song history. But with these two albums the revolutionary approach to lyrics that sustained Eno during the early part of his career (what song has better lyrics than “Baby’s On Fire,” from Here Come the Warm Jets, or “King’s Lead Hat,” from Before and After Science?) no longer appeals to the artist, and the same is true of the lyricist on Everything That Happens. The Byrne who wrote “Once In a Lifetime” or “Burning Down the House” has long since vacated the premises, replaced with a lyric craftsperson, and the result is lyrics that are unimpeachable, relevant, catchy, and not as artful.
Which means: that the problem now, as history proposes it, and as Eno himself has noted (in different words) is this: how can you write lyrics that are not fucking dumb. The fucking dumb lyrics everywhere around us. To take two examples of artists produced by Eno: U2 now writes lyrics that are fucking dumb, and Coldplay writes some of the fucking dumbest lyrics around. Fucking dumb! Ridiculous! The kind of pabulum that you just cannot bear to listen without wincing a little! I defy you not to wince while listening to Coldplay. Coldplay makes me want to crawl under the proverbial rock. And I will go further and advance an unpopular opinion, but I happen to think that even Radiohead writes fucking dumb lyrics, or at least that they have done so for a good four or five years now. Thom Yorke complains! Some other people who write fucking dumb lyrics? The Rolling Stones. Fucking dumb! The last good Rolling Stones lyrics was “Undercover of the Night,” and I think that was 1983. That’s twenty-seven years without a good lyric. The entire genre of contemporary R&B is noted for its fucking dumb lyrics. Beyoncé? Fucking dumb. John Legend? Rihanna? Fucking dumb. Those are lyrics designed for twelve year olds. And since I am no longer twelve, and have not been for almost forty years, I should not have to listen to them, or, at the very least, I should not be obliged to call them art. And the same goes for Adele. I am glad for Adele that at her rather young age there seem to be entire radio stations that do nothing but play her album over and over, and she does have a really extraordinary voice, and it was extraordinary when it was Amy Winehouse’s voice, but that does not mean that her lyrics are not fucking dumb.
I could go on and on, but I’m not going to, because the point here is the Sweet Spot, and how history anoints and tears down. And what history has pointed out recently is that it is very very difficult to write a lyric that adds to the songcraft, and it is perhaps the case that hip hop is one of the few places where this is possible these days, and that sense of purpose in hip hop has made it hard for people writing in other genres to do anything interesting with words, and my point is further that Brian Eno, because he is indeed a bellwether for things happening in the musical field, seems to know this, and he has admirably attempted to confront the problem, arriving at a solution, perhaps even a second Sweet Spot, quite recently.
The album is called Drums Between the Bells. And “Strong” doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s better than that! If Eno seemed to be in the Sweet Spot from 1975-1985, and then somewhat in exile from 1990-2005, because of history, because of what history needs, then Drums Between the Bells fucks with everything that we know about recent Eno, and restores him to a place where he seems to be ahead of the curve and very well aware of what his work means, and, even, to be singularly articulate about what he wants his “songs” to mean. Well, are they really songs? Drums Between the Bells is a sort of a “poetronica” album, as lyricist Rick Holland has put it, because “spoken word” doesn’t mean anything anymore. Especially after hip hop, after the high period of hip hop. If hip hop makes ordinary lyrics unlistenable and impossible to suffer, because of how hip hop, at its best, values the words, then hip hop also renders melody somewhat unimportant (of course), or, perversely, makes the microtonality of melody seem like melody of a very pure sort. This is the case, for example, in dancehall, where the spoken and the sung are extremely near to one another, hard to tease apart. So is Drums Between the Bells to late period hip hop as My Life In the Bush of Ghosts was to early rap? Is it a sort of postmodern version of dancehall? It’s certainly the case that Eno knows his black music, and is always trying to find some white and experimental equivalent (on Remain in Light, e.g., Byrne and Eno were listening to Funkadelic, and on Nerve Net, Eno was listening to electric Miles Davis, and always there is West African music hovering not far in the distance, especially Fela Kuti, and juju, and Ali Farka Touré, et al.), so it makes sense that there might here be some distant influence of hip hop and dancehall.
But the main object of our attention, for the moment, should be the lyrics, and the place that the lyrics occupy in Drums Between the Bells. Not music in front of the lyrics (which may perhaps mark what spoken word is), but lyrics as an element in the music, lying in the bed of the thing, a part of it, something that makes it better, something that makes it other than it might have been, without being different in intention from the music. On that basis, if the poems are all a priori, and the music is just accompaniment, then the piece, in my view, is a failure. And I was prepared to believe that Drums Between the Bells was going to be a failure, because I kept reading about it as though it were a spoken word project, in which Eno took some poems by this fellow Rick Holland, with whom I have corresponded briefly (“Q: Had you experimented with musical settings of your poems before Drums Between the Bells? A: Yes. I have not ever been anywhere near as excited by buckling in to a metric pattern or traditional poetic form as I have by the synergies that come into being between words and music (real or imagined). Plain forms of poetry, and lyric have been most exciting to me. (Possibly through cultural experience as much as instinct) breakbeats particularly have always seemed to belong to exactly the same world as poetry, energising punctuation perhaps, and by extension of this thinking, almost anything is acceptable for me in poetry experience. I think we experiment with our own musical settings when we read words that move us, even when we don’t understand why the group of words and sounds affects us. My poetic style reflects this, a magpie approach to rhythms and I think a keen sense of floating images and soundbanks that let a listener or reader fill in the spaces. I also love it when musicians fill in the spaces, or a singer, but also enjoy the words being chewed up in other mediums too, cartoonists, painters, dancers. Music remains the most exciting, but the worlds are merging and I am enjoying exploring visual representations more and more as well. The answer to your question though is that most of my poetry has involved experimenting with musical settings, probably from a ‘minimal’ angle with the initial music in my head though I enjoy writing to beat patterns very much, and music more than anything gave my young self a direction to channel through that traditional poetry on a page or in a reading had never managed. Leading on from this I think Spoken Word says more about our need to classify than anything. I notice that a term poetronica is being banded about, that is perhaps closer to what our album ‘is’, but the need for classifications is outmoded and we will grow out of it completely one day I think, it will seem a relic of a very different era. Your comment that DBTB is more hybridised is right, the spoken words are segments of sound and not often ‘performed’. ‘Spoken word’ has come to symbolise an energised accappella kind of rapping really I think, a performance style. I find increasingly that while ‘spoken word’ can evoke the energy of raw performance, it isn’t really of any real value as a term. It is a synonym for ‘code’ like all types of language, but as a performace form can follow pretty regular patterns, rewarding certain sound effects and run-ons. Good as part of a mixed diet maybe…. there are some incredibly talented spoken word artists out there, it is not a form that consistently excites me though.”) and created some musical simulacrum for them. But even that doesn’t quite explain it. Because what is best, it seems to me, is the way the vocals render the lyrics on Drums Between the Bells.
When I was expecting not to like the album—because I thought maybe history was right, and Eno’s only recent breakthroughs were going to be the installation pieces and Bloom (I haven’t even talked about Bloom yet!), his iPhone app—I nonetheless decided to give Drums Between the Bells a listen one night, the album, when I had really bad insomnia. I was thinking, There is no way that I’m going to like these poems, because … because, well, because I have trouble with the word “poem,” and whenever I see the word “poem,” I want to the poem to be a victim burnt at the stake signaling through the flames, and unless the poem has this much going on in it, it’s going to leave me cold. Don’t talk to me of love, unless you are Dido awaiting Aeneas on the pyre, and don’t write lyrics unless you actually have something to say, and for godsakes, don’t speak of your lyrics as though they were poems. But still: I had insomnia, and it was the middle of the night, and I downloaded a track from the album, the track called “Bless This Space,” and initially I didn’t like the groove, because the synth part sounded like this sort of trashy synth preset, “fat synth” that I associate with a Casio or something similarly well-traveled, but then once the lyrics started, and we had the oddly stiff and limpid and alluring reading by Eno himself, saying: “bless this space/in sound and rhyme/as we suspend it/arrested from the race/for meaning/by these slices/of cityscapes” Well, it was hard not to be compelled. In fact, it’s possible that awake, at three or four in the morning, listening to the song on headphones, while my daughter drowsed nearby, was in someway the perfect listening situation for Drums Between the Bells, itself reminding me of those lines by W. C. Williams, “If I in my north room/dance naked, grotesquely/before my mirror/waving my shirt round my head/and singing softly to myself:/”I am lonely, lonely./I was born to be lonely,/I am best so! . . . Who shall say I am not/the happy genius of my household?” My experience of “Bless This Space” was like that experience, the experience of Williams’s narrator, and so I saw something in “Bless This Space” that I might not have seen, heard, otherwise, namely its absolute fidelity to its earnest resolve, and upon coming to believe that that earnest resolve was good, that I should not second guess it, I came to see how potent the drumming was on the truck, the syncopation, and some really fancy rolls, perhaps edited slightly, but nonetheless drums with the real warmth and truth of acoustic drumming, and then a guitar solo like a pair of squirrels falling out of a tree, squirrels wrestling, and suddenly I was a believer. It didn’t matter that the original synth part sounded too plug-and-play, I believed in the blessing part of the song, and in the strange decontextualization of the poem in Eno’s performance, both blessing and mechanization, as rendered there. The next one I tried, and there is no real reason that I tried, this particular track, there was no method, and with Eno there should always be the possibility of random sorting in the listening experience, was “Seedpods,” which does not follow “Bless This Space” on the album, but which has, in stark contrast to the preset-like synth part on “Bless This Space,” a ridiculously infectious groove, one that achieves some of its effect because of the presence of shakers. Yes, I mean those little percussion items. Shakers that actually require people to shake them. I derive great pleasure from the idea of Eno, at home, in his studio, recording the shaker part for “Seedpods.” As opposed to using a shaker sample. And in this fantasy Eno is not in some luxury studio (because a lot of the record was recorded at home, as most of his work is these days), but waking up one morning, between doing interviews on cybernetics, taking the time to record the shakers, instead. However: hesitating over the shakers for too long will keep me from describing the vocal presentation here. The vocalist is a woman, one Caroline Wildi, whom I believe to be an actresss, and she brings a palpable joy to the very eccentric lyric: “all over London/the clicker of seedpods/against passing buses/organism/or prism/heart light divided/heart sound machine/in different souls/trying to pick the bones . . .” Or something like that! The lyrics are not available in the booklet, so I am trying to reconstruct them. I’m trying to reconstruct the way that Wildi’s joy, in delivering these lyrics, works in the context of the aforementioned groove, a groove that is resistant to its electronic origins, which may be why some listeners to Drums Between the Bells resist the album for not being electronic enough, or not up-to-date enough as contribution to the genre of electronica, when that, for me, is not what it’s about, but what it is about, is a belief in whatever poetry is, and an idea about using whatever poetry is for your lyrical basis, and in believing, mattering, and mattering making pop music less disposable.
There are vocal performances on this album that are inadequate, on purpose, for example the Italianate English of “Pour It Out,” which so dramatically improves the song. The guitar part on “Pour It Out,” which serves as the better part of the sonic bed, is a dead ringer for a guitar piece on Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, sort of country, sort of ambient, but Italian accent of Laura Spagnuolo, especially on such resolutely hard-to-read lines as “it is weird release/to imagine the miniscule/where deep sea molluscs/can glow orange in tendrils/and haemoglobin nodules exist,” raises the song up out of the off-kilter country-and-western into some surging narrative bit of tenderness. Spagnuolo is not a reader, not capable of reading, and so she doesn’t read like a reader, but like someone who is discovering the English language while speaking it, and so the poem is disrupted and made to exist as a sequence of very unusual sounds, just as the music, by the use of these strange, and frequently arresting words, is disrupted, and caused to be other than it first appears. The same is true in “Glitch,” where Graznya Goworek is auto-tuned, and made especially glitchy to serve as both theme and method, and it’s worth mentioning the booklet in this case, where Eno’s layout of the lyrics much resembles John Cage’s old Finnegans Wake pieces, in which there was sense across both a line of text, and up and down.
“The Real” is also an especially beautiful piece here, again, using an ambient field not entirely unfamiliar to longtime listeners of Eno (it reminds me a bit of “An Ending,” also from Apollo, and might even be a sample or a re-edit of that track), but made new and more compelling by the problematic proposed in the lyric itself: “the flourish/seeing the real in things/really seeing the real/describing the exact actuality/of what it is you see/or what it is you seem to see/you really seem to see the real . . .” Elisha Mudly’s voice, adolescent, uncomplicated, through its naïf charm, makes the real a possibility (though the non-existence of the real seems to have been settled long ago), and in this sense the song is a triumph of literary material over electronics, delivering on an allegedly impossible task, an electronic composition that feels deeply organic and touching, while nonetheless having a vocoded, auto-tuned section in the middle where the machines reread what has been carefully “sung.” There’s so much humanness on the track you can almost hear Mudly rustling the pages. There are mouth sounds, and the sound of the interior in which the actress read the poem. Does Eno himself despair of the real? Or does Eno admit that the real is here, in the recording, far beyond all the cultural and philosophical disputes that might argue against the real? Holland’s lyric has a bit of the opening of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, too, “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Holland wants to efface the real and accept the real, and in that way he makes poetry transportative and contemporary at the same time. And yet until the poem is entrapped in the amber of Mudly’s reading, and in Eno’s original electronic score that is not entirely original, since partly self-plagiarized, it does not have the great beauty that it ought to have. Then it arrives at its incredibly sad last line, “the real is done,” and suddenly the work arrives at its purpose. Holland is young, and Mudly is even younger, but Eno is not, and it’s the bittersweet architecture of the piece, made by a middle-aged person, though composed by another, that makes “the real is done” so sad.
Eno reserves the deepest perception of the album for himself on “Breath of Crows,” whose tinkling and echo-laden bells frankly recalled On Land. Eno sings this one, and this amounts to a paradox on an album of “spoken word,” an album which is not a spoken word album, and which is not an album of pop songs, and is not even an album of music, but something that amounts to a hybrid of all these. “Breath of Crows” is very close, if you leave aside the bells (perhaps the bells alluded to in the title), to electronic noise. It is only by happenstance that it is musical, and that is part of what’s so unsettling about it. Holland’s lyric here concerns theological (and anti-theological) matters, and the recoiling therefrom, as indicated in the first line, “my god is in the breath of crows/it grows and shrinks with nature’s whim,” and, later, “it must be absolute this god.” I am making these lyrics my own today, because Eno doesn’t print these lyrics, nor are these lyrics generally accessible on the web, and that is of some interest, that these lyrics are here alone for now, and Eno’s improvised melody, which does not have a conventional melodic movement, but feels, rather, improvised over the ambience,.which amounts to a rather creepy seventh chord, is of the Carnatic variety, or so it feels to me, because the Carnatic tradition is primarily vocal, and Eno here is improvising, as one would improvise in Carnatic tradition, moreover the scale, in which the seventh note is played first, in the bass, before the root note, is, I guess, locrian, and locrian is not unlike the way sevenths and ninths work in Vedic chants, and perhaps in this way the theology of “Breath of Crows” is of a pantheistic or non-Western shape, May I not delude my eyes, the narrator says, meaning may all religious experience be not doctrinal, but full of woe and passionate observation equally, rooted in the paradoxical real as indicated above. We don’t know what the real is, the breath of crows suggests, but we know how it feels.
There’s a lot that I haven’t said about Drums Between the Bells yet, and that’s after almost eight thousand words. There’s a lot more I might do to indicate the awe that I associate with the advent of this album, there’s a lot more to say about the voices, and about the “dance oriented” numbers, and the way that Eno confronts expectations about “dance music” and with ideas of “intelligent dance music,” reiterating how art plays a part in all of this, while at the same time making an album that is surpassingly British in some ways (I can’t even think of this album without the moment in “Seedpods” when Caroline Wildi says “All over London . . .”), or at least that it has a terrain in which its effects find their origin, and that is a British terrain. I might have said more about the surprise of the whole thing, about the way drums continue to be used in Eno with marked originality, and I might have said more about the variety of vocalists, and about the whole was done modestly, far more modestly, let’s say, than recent recordings by Jay Z or Beyoncé, and yet with more care or certainty than any of these recordings. And this recording was made by a man who will be 64 on his next birthday, and while other musicians of his generation rest on their laurels, go on the road performing songs they wrote nearly a half century before, Eno has done no such thing, has almost never performed his own songs, at all, and has turned his back on almost every tendency in his own output, embracing, contrarily, opposition over consonance, happenstance over intention, conceptual heterodoxy, pathos where least expected, and all of this long after the Sweet Spot, when the Sweet Spot would long seem to have migrated over to, I suppose, Radiohead, or, maybe, Kurt Vile, though the days will come when these artists will clamor for the respect they once took for granted.
I was somewhere on the road, not so long ago, don’t remember where, and again completely beyond sleep, and sitting in a tub in a hotel I never would have been able to afford, were it not for the largesse of some festival, or book publisher, in that despair which is the loss of all things, of all relevant handholds, in the tub, as the water slowly cools toward that lukewarm which is the universal temperature required for self-slaughter, and I had just downloaded Bloom, which is a software program devised by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers in which you simply touch your touchscreen and certain rather euphonic sounds emanate from a visual field of impressionist bubbles, and these replay and decay rather slowly, while some Eno-ish drones drone in the distant sonic space. If you are too lazy to fashion your little pizzicato stabs of sound, Bloom will do it for you. Eno describes the whole thing, I believe, as his composition, which is sort of like La Monte Young saying that he picked the one note that the Theatre of Eternal Music used to play, but who wants to quibble? You compose what Eno composed first. The thing plays itself, and you can intervene, or you can just let the breath of crows play the thing while you lay there cooling toward absolute zero, toward the time when all of our musical gestures will sound like Eno’s best compositions, little desperate iterations of sonic order against a backdrop of white noise, radio static, and then silence, and if this is what it means to be no longer in your Sweet Spot, that you are capable of making Drums Between the Bells, on the one hand, and Bloom on the other, so that very nearly dead in the heartless hotel interiors of the post-industrial wasteland are afforded a few more minutes of relative comfort, just before capitalism finishes them off, then I say we should all be so lucky as to be beyond our sweet spots.