Lauded almost to the point of mythos, Brian Eno’s status as a paragon of modern music is derived largely from his unimpeachable production work as well as his time as a member of art rock innovators Roxy Music. With a resume including names like Talking Heads, Devo, Slowdive, U2, David Bowie, and, more recently, James Blake, Eno’s touch bears the distinction of somehow being both recognizable yet unique from project to project. Recent years have seen Eno’s prolific yet long-overlooked solo work earn its just due, his last solo effort, 2010’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea, offering a broad scope of what he’d always been capable of on either side of the studio glass.
A collaborative album with Karl Hyde, 2014’s High Life displayed the finely tuned abilities of both artists in creating a sprawling kind of musical topography ranging from Afro-pop to ambience to funk. Though labeled as an ambient installation piece, Eno’s latest offering, The Ship, doesn’t adhere only to the ethereal and subdued like its predecessor, 2012’s Lux. While the album’s four tracks fall within those characteristic nuances of sparse ambience, The Ship also provides an enthralling look at what occurs when Eno introduces electricity into the otherwise subdued atmosphere of the music.
As the opening song, the 21-minute title track exists on a dual plane somewhere just between the late ’70s work of krautrock icons Popol Vuh and the minimalist keyboard work of Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright. Eno’s partiality to electronics is akin to a fish’s partiality to water, yet unlike the one-trick-pony tendency for creativity, Eno continues well into his fourth decade of creating some of modern music’s most engaging sounds by giving them equitable space to inhabit on each track.
Regardless of what’s often equated with brilliance, songs that extend well past the “Stairway to Heaven” mark had better be well worth the trip, otherwise it’ll be back to the palate-cleansing brevity of punk to recover from what sounded like a keyboardist who’d locked the other band members out of the studio. For “The Ship”, Eno makes the journey worthwhile, putting just as much care and effort into the music’s swells as he does its hushed emptiness. The result is a pairing of contrasts that function as complementarily as they do independently of each other.
Explained by Eno as a musical analogy for paranoia and the devastating effects of consumerism, The Ship functions in that purpose with near totality, though it’s also that specificity that gives the album its only flaw. Considering the subject matter, it’s not likely that the music’s despondent mood would surprise anyone, especially given its relevance to a culture more inclined to glance at a screen than to rely on actual experience. To that end, The Ship occasionally falters in stressing the importance of its somber temperament, with the 18-minute “Fickle Sun (i)” dragging well into the realm of being overly long.
Though not a detriment to the album as a whole, the fact that the song follows an almost equally as long and more successfully rendered track creates a redundant stasis in an otherwise fluid collection of sounds. It’s telling that even with those overwrought moments, The Ship finds Eno’s music again foregoing the linear conventions of music and creating a kind of shapeless yet directed sound experience instead. More than that, the album is one in a long series of evidences that Eno’s limitations remain as near mythic as the man himself.
Essential Tracks: “The Ship”, “Fickle Sun (iii) I’m Set Free”