There are certain albums that much of the listening populace has written off — Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, for one, plus a few ’70s goofs from Gregg Allman, Elvis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Want an even better example? Just ask Greil Marcus what he thinks of Bob Dylan’s surreal folk disaster Self-Portrait — or read for yourself.
Whether or not you choose to uphold these records’ redeeming qualities, the point is that great artists can, and do, make terrible albums. I’d like to add Brian Eno and Karl Hyde’s High Life to the list.
High Life comes just over two months after the electronic wizards’ first collaborative full-length, Someday World, which should tell you something about its craftsmanship. Someday World wasn’t even the train wreck it could have been, with song structures reminiscent of Eno’s celebrated production work and the proto-shoegaze of Here Come the Warm Jets. Though Hyde (of house outfit Underworld fame) adds animate trim to Eno’s beats and bloops, the workload always falls disproportionately on the latter’s shoulders.
But the pair’s rapport can be heard in their carefree sonic meandering, resulting in music that’s more spontaneous than the fettered ambience Eno has been laying down as of late. High Life feeds off this momentum to develop a more unified sound, yet it has all the characteristics of a rush job: namely, overindulgence that fails to produce anything attention-grabbing. Then again, the disappointment would be worse if a massive amount of anticipation had preceded the album’s release.
No contractual obligation prompted High Life’s release, so why it’s here is a mystery. This is clearly a collection of leftovers, composed using Someday World’s Afro-Eastern polyrhythms but lacking any fine-tuning, which, to be fair, has never really been Eno’s thing. But Hyde offers no counterbalance. Instead, he and Eno recycle obnoxious harmonies on group chants like “Lilac” or the agitating purr of “Cells & Bells”. Both tracks’ instrumental foundation run their course after a minute or two, so it’s beyond frustrating to have to wait it out for another seven before moving forward, especially when Hyde’s raspy vocals don’t expedite the process.
Careless mixing sabotages other selections. “DBF”, a slab of funky syncopation with a nervous tic, sounds like it’s been funneled through PVC pipe held against a set of foldable Bluetooth speakers. Meanwhile, “Return” aims for the otherworldly power of ’80s U2, but it gets half-buried under tinny guitar drone. Where is the sonic auteur who manipulates the studio like an instrument of its own? Gone fishing, apparently. If these oversights are deliberate — and given the album’s quick turnaround, who can tell? — then Eno is hurting his reputation as a genius of modern recording.
What can go wrong when two wired minds ricochet off the studio walls? Lots. These six tracks, marketed as Someday World’s conceptual expansion, ultimately constitute a thrown-together package. Hamming it up in the studio is fun, but as producers themselves, Eno and Hyde should know that no amount of post-production magic can turn bad songs good — not that they bothered to try. You can applaud them for chasing a creative high, but from two artists of their caliber, listeners should expect something better than High Life.
Essential Tracks: “Return”, “Moulded Life”