Across the last decade there’s been a slow, almost casual return to making records under his own name from one of the greatest sonic architects of the 20th Century. If he never put his fingerprints on any future recordings he’s already done enough as sideman, collaborator, conceptualist, solo artist, producer and then as strategist and visual artist – and lecturer – but the last few records have shown a limber mind still exploring the possibilities of ambience as a tool as well as an actual space or set of shapes – and through ear-warming aural wallpaper of LUX we heard an Eno returning, at least in part, to his earliest ambient projects. Here with his first new studio album since LUX we have one of the most fully representative albums of the various Brian Enos that have made solo recordings – the hypnotic sprawl, languid ambient stretches and then some of the singing from his singer/songwriter albums.
The Ship’s opening title track – a side-length slice of slow-crawl textural music that is part soundscape or sonic installation and part throwback to his 1970s work features three distinct parts: an instrumental intro, a middle passage featuring Eno singing and a final section that works as if a collage, fractured voice snippets mingling with piercing moments of music-as-sound/sound-as-music.
But to even try to describe it is to sell it short – instantly. For this is utterly mesmeric.
Eno used to make ambient records – he also used to make pop albums, he’s never really – truly – combined them. But that’s what the aim is her and the result is tectonic, as if the world’s longest, slowest pop song has been built from the parts of spent soundtrack passages; as if pop music’s history has been slowed to an almost inconceivable drawl.
The side two – or part two – of The Ship is a composition called Fickle Sun. Split into three parts it begins with a lengthy Eno extrapolation of sound that builds, again, from quiet but more purposeful ambient backdrop to a song, Eno’s voice more at the centre than it’s been since the 1970s, it’s as if he’s made his own bruised suite that clangs about in places like a Scott Walker reverie.
Part Two of The Fickle Sun is subtitled The Hour Is Thin and features spoken word across a plaintive piano line. Peter Serofinowitz is our reader and the content tells us this is uneasy listening despite the suit its dressed in, despite the suite it belongs to. There is this wolf-in-sheep’s clothing feel about the album, a heavy concept around the war of this world and the struggle for communication to actually mean something, to go somewhere, to be heard. That ties this to the album’s other concept – an exploration of voice and the way the voice is (or can be) used. The record culminates in a cover of The Velvet Underground’s I’m Set Free, here the subtitle to The Fickle Sun (III). It’s as close as we’ll get to an understanding of Eno’s much-heralded discussion of the joy of singing for health and mental health reasons; it’s also a validation of that oft-quoted Eno line about the influence of the VU, not that we really needed to go looking for it this late in his career – it’s more a reminder of the forever-presence and prescience.
The Ship is emotionally draining in the way that Gorecki’s Third Symphony is emotionally draining. It’s rewarding in the same way – and beautiful too. It’s also a reminder of Eno’s Another Green World, in terms of the harnessing of two different types of musical moments and movements, here it’s less jarring the way the ambient and vocal/pop tracks sit together; they have in fact been blended beautifully.