Eno continues to explore the unlimited possibilities.
For someone who refuses to call himself a musician, Brian Eno has had a tremendous influence on modern music. From his initial rise within Roxy Music to his iconic solo releases to his revolutionary exploration of ambient sounds within a contemporary context, Eno has been at the forefront of the musical vanguard, curating and bringing to light those on the fringes while constantly pushing himself to explore new and different approaches to composition. That he still manages to create contemporary sounding, relevant music more than 40 years on is a testament not only to his creative genius, but also to the far-reaching effect his work has had on modern music. Rather than sounding like an artist attempting to repeat former glories, Eno’s music has maintained a feel very much ahead of its time, pushing the bounds of what was previously thought possible.
His first solo release in four years, The Ship began life as an experiment in three-dimensional recordings for a sound installation in Stockholm. Always approaching his creative process like that of a visual artist, Eno’s work here is meant to evoke the awesome majesty of the rolling sea and its immense power, even in the face of mankind’s perceived progression in taming the world in which we live. By invoking the sinking of the Titanic, Eno is able to ruminate on the lives of those doomed to a life cut short by an unforgiving sea. Given the glacial pace at which “The Ship” moves, it’s as though Eno himself is the personification of the sea, moving ever onward, slowly and methodically with little remorse or concern for those who found their lives cut short, the graves the bottom of the Atlantic.
The title track begins with a series of long, sustained synth swells that start off as little more than a whisper and building to a hushed drone. Here is Eno launching a full return to his ambient roots in the form of an elegiac tone poem for the Titanic, the album’s titular ship. It’s obviously well-charted territory, but as has been his wont since his days in Roxy Music, Eno manages to find new and different ways of approaching not only the subject matter, but the compositional process as a whole.
“The Ship” is an undulating slow burn that never boils over or relies on emotionally on-point crescendos to hammer home the emotionality over the aural exploration of one of the greatest tragedies of the early 20th century. Instead, there’s an elastic quality to the track and, without any discernible rhythm, the implied forward movement of “The Ship” is in the rising and falling of the synth swells and the juxtaposition of Eno’s monotonic vocals with that of the long, drawn out dronescapes.
When Eno’s voice enters, it comes in the form of a two-part vocal chant. What’s most striking is the newfound depth of his range. Where before his vocals tended towards the fey, here he sounds at times like Scott Walker, his voice richly resonate and emanating from a place deep within his throat. Rather than a straight narrative from the perspective of the famed ship’s doomed passengers, Eno’s recitation functions more as an impressionistic reimagining of the event’s inherent melancholy and the awesome, quiet power of the sea. It’s not for nothing that the final, repeated phrase finds him intoning, “wave after wave after wave…” as a sort of resigned mantra of futility as spectral voices fade in an out as if from some ethereal radio broadcast swirling about in the ether.
As with the best ambient sound experiments, “The Ship” proves a wholly immersive listening experience. Over the course of the track’s 21-minute runtime, any discernible melodic figure is ignored in favor of a repetitive, gradual evolution of the synth swells. Here, they afford a hypnotic quality, gently rolling in and out with only the subtlest of variation, becoming the musical embodiment of a mercilessly unrelenting, unforgiving sea.
Yet where “The Ship” can at times feel oppressive in its melancholy, the three-part “Fickle Sun” suite offers an undercurrent of optimism. In the first and longest part, “Fickle Sun” plays again with the measured evolution of sounds building upon one another. Instead of remaining at a menacing simmer, it allows for rolling peaks and valleys to form a far more traditionally structured song. In this, too, he adds elements of heavily distorted, reverberating guitar and intermittent crashes and synth brass stabs that cut through the track’s more monotonous droning passages. Contrasted with the preceding “The Ship,” “Fickle Sun,” especially as it reaches its midway point, becomes something far more explosive and prone to an instability that manages to stave of the hypnotic effect ambient music tends to have.
Further exploring this break from the established template of “The Ship,” Eno abandons his droning, chant-like voice in favor of a more mellifluous baritone that rises and falls within a limited melodic range, not unlike that of one-time protégé and collaborator Nico. But rather than laying his voice out naked and unfettered, he again layers octaves to create a deeply resonant effect that becomes something of a synthetic instrument in and of itself. By track’s end, this approach, coupled with the menacing sonic textures and intermittent string swells, has a gently unsettling effect that lingers long after the drone dies out.
On “The Hour is Thin,” the suites middle part, Peter Serafinowicz lends his dulcet tones to a prim and proper recitation atop Eno’s sparse, Satie-esque piano. After the magnitude of both the first part of “Fickle Sun” and “The Ship,” “The Hour is Thin” feels like something of an unwanted interloper designed to give an air of solemn gravity to the album. It’s not necessarily a detriment to the album as a whole, but it’s certainly anomalous in its approach and somewhat distracting given the measured monologue from Serafinowicz.
Fortunately, the three-part suite ends with a gorgeous cover of Lou Reed’s “I’m Set Free.” Here Eno allows for the first time traditional rock instrumentation and percussion to enter the fray. Its lush strings coupled with Eno’s melancholic vocals help to make this one of the album’s more affecting moments. It’s a fine, fitting way to close what ultimately proves to be one of Brian Eno’s finest latter day efforts. If only we all could experience such seemingly limitless depths of creativity and sustained relevance and influence over the course of some five decades. Instead of resting on his laurels, with The Ship Eno continues to explore the unlimited possibilities afforded by the unbridled creativity of a so-called non-musician.