Oh, Brian Eno. What else is there to say that hasn’t already been said by every music critic/wannabe hipster on the planet?
We all know the basics–Eno lent his synthesizers and general weirdness to the first two Roxy Music albums before leaving to embark on one of rock’s most singular and eclectic trajectories of solo albums and production. He’s worked with, played with, and inspired just about everybody in the business, and somehow, he remains as “cool” and influential today as he was back in the ’70s, when he was just a mysterious sound manipulator who sorta looked like a vampire.
It’s been a big year for Eno already: He re-united with his old Roxy Music pals, adding overdubs to Bryan Ferry’s comeback solo album Olympia, and was on the receiving end of an official song dedication (MGMT’s jokey acid-punk track “Brian Eno” depicted a wizardly Eno residing in a castle, casting spells with his synths). But even though his recent projects have been decidedly more mainstream (let’s not forget he co-produced Coldplay’s last album Viva La Vida back in 2008 and U2’s No Line on the Horizon last year), Eno has gone in a decidedly more textural, ambient, non-mainstream direction with Small Craft on a Milk Sea, his first album for Warp Records, which, to be fair, is a collaboration album with Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins.
It’s been awhile since Eno’s gone solo (at least relatively speaking). 2005’s Another Day on Earth proved to be a challenge, as he abandoned his trademark instrumental soundscapes in favor of more traditional songs with lyrics. By his standards, the critical reception was lukewarm at best, leaving many listeners scratching their heads, wondering why the master had bothered wandering so far from his long-warmed throne. Just hearing the title Small Craft on a Milk Sea (along with seeing the album’s modern, minimal cover, which, strangely, looks like a slightly adjusted version of U2’s last) is pretty much a confirmation that this is not going to be an album of traditional songcraft.
“Emerald and Lime” opens gracefully: a low-key electric piano doodle, brightly reverbed chords arpeggiating in a bath of sunlight, ably evoking the milky seas of the album title. It’s pretty, for sure, but when “Complex Heaven” follows with a similarly airy structure, minimal acoustic guitar prickling over ghostly piano notes, you might think you’ve been dropped in the middle of an anonymous independent film score. Okay, so Eno’s bread and butter has always been ambience, but what’s always made his ambience so good is that either the melodies were engaging (even if a bit repetitive) or the ambience (slowly but surely) developed into something. “Complex Heaven” is pleasant, no doubt, but there’s not much beneath the shiny, echoing surface.
Small Craft on a Milk Sea works best at its least sleepy. When Eno decides to up the tempo and add some structural development, the results can be otherworldly. The solitary, ever-winding melody that makes up the core of “Bone Jump” is developed on bass and various keyboards, augmented by bursts of erratic guitar noise. “Paleosonic” is similarly guitar-heavy, bursts of Fripp-like dissonance layered over textures of bleeps and blips, culminating in a trippy fury of effects best experienced on headphones.
More tracks like these and Small Craft “could have been a contender”…for something–one of the year’s best, I guess. Instead, it boils down to a handful of inspired textures and a ton of ambience that would have worked better with a visual counterpoint. Sadly, the sparsest, quietest moments here sound like they could have been created by anyone. For an artist as unique as Eno, trademark is half the battle. Honestly, if you remove the “Eno” label altogether, it’s hard to imagine the music garnering much attention. Small Craft on a Milk Sea is easy to root for in real time, but it’s also pretty difficult to remember, let alone long for, once its ambient pulses and drones have faded.