A work of music that challenges and soothes, engrosses and sedates.
Brian Eno’s ambient music represents not merely the core of the genre but the constant yardstick of its measurement. Eno’s best work demonstrates the manner in which ambient is more than simple repetitions or drone, but rather a half-plotted map that uses its reference points as anchors for explorations into unknown space. Eno released his latest, Reflection on the first of the new year, accompanied by a long statement about the preceding one, describing 2016 as “pretty rough” before laying out a simultaneously despairing and hopeful outline of the dehumanized world in which we live and the possibility that we may finally crawl back from this abyss. That sentiment informs this 54-minute track, which embodies the dual meaning of its title as both a rumination and a refraction upon a polished surface.
A step back from the complexity of last year’s The Ship, “Reflection” unspools with a faint, mid-register drone joined by pulses of sound that branch out from the core like a tree in spring bloom. Eno’s generative composition ducks the repetition of ambient for endless possibility. In fact, the track, gargantuan as it is, represents merely one iteration of Eno’s complete concept, realized with the help of an app that allows for infinite variation. This is perhaps the final sonic-technological terrain for the great innovator, a humbly self-professed non-musician who championed the democratic value of electronic music. This is the death of the author taken to an extreme, with both computers and the listener in charge of the final arrangements, should the word “final” even be invoked.
This is an exciting step for an artist whose entire career has been as evolutionary as it is revolutionary. The format also encourages a certain looseness in the listener, attenuating the ear to the small variations in the composition. Eno’s synthesized pulses slur into one another, making it difficult not only to weigh one note from the other but also giving the impression of multiple different instruments growing out of the same digitized source. Underlying clusters of bell-like percussion are joined by glissandi that ape strings, moans that dip into outright whale song. Everything bounces over the surface, pinging and echoing and folding back before gently moving in a lateral direction. Only Eno could manage to be minimalist and pointillist at once, using small dots of color not to fill in a larger portrait but to suggest one.
Eno always designed ambient music as something that, ideally, could hold up equally as background distraction and studious headphone listening, and Reflection embodies that approach as much as his finest classic work. Despite the track’s length, it invites multiple listens, all the better to suss out its incremental changes or to luxuriate in the occasional upheavals of the composition. As ever with the efforts of forward-thinking artists like Björk and Eno to wed their musical ambition with technological innovation, it’s understandable if one views this project’s ultimate app-based format as a gimmick and a detraction from the music actually presented. In truth, the music on The Ship is, for its own sake, more exploratory in its arrangement. But this remains a fascinating experiment even when divorced from its deeper context, a work of music that challenges and soothes, engrosses and sedates. If nothing else, it continues Eno’s recent streak of pushing himself in his later career, and fans should be unpacking this epic track for some time to come.