Another look at Brian Eno

John-Paul Anthony

Last week, I tried to make it clear why I hold Brian Eno as one of the most important figures for in the last half-century of music. This time, instead of discussing the wide-ranging effects of his career, I’ll try to legitimate my claim with a look at his songs.

To best understand a musician’s career, to fully appreciate what happens from album to album, one must be immersed in the artist’s entire catalogue. However, I’ll make a concession here. Most people, when it comes to music, fall into the category of casual listeners. Certainly this is a byproduct of our generation. C’mon, it’s been said before – culture of consumption this, iPod that; the fact is that the album is largely a dying entity. Although everything in me says “fight it,” I suppose I understand people don’t have the time or the patience or the whatever it takes to spend repeated hours doing nothing but listening to a record and really connecting with it. In consideration of the fast-paced life of a typical college student, I’ll try to make this easy. Here, music lovers, is my essential Brain Eno. Gentlemen (and ladies), start your file-sharing programs.

Eno’s 1974 solo debut, “Here Come the Warm Jets,” is a sprawling masterpiece of experimental pop music. Recorded after his departure from Roxy Music, the album seems to capture Eno at a peak of manic creation. Songs build and release tension, affected instruments blend seamlessly or bounce off one another in harmonious discord, and lyrics move from the free-associative as built on a particular event to seemingly meaningless placeholders for phonetic voicing. Two tracks that seem to offer the best sketch of Brian Eno at this point of creative schizophrenia are “Baby’s On Fire” and “Here Come the Warm Jets.”

“Baby’s On Fire” begins with three instruments: a pulsating bass, metronomically tense high-hat and electronic squiggles that sound like robot worms digging through the tension of these first few seconds. What follows is roughly five minutes of the same foundation, joined by Eno singing an emotionally detached account of a woman spontaneously bursting into flames – full of viewers mesmerized not by human pain, but by the sight of the “object” burning: “They said you were hot stuff/and that’s what baby’s been reduced to.” Eno says none of his lyrics mean anything, but it’s hard not to project a reading onto this song as a critique on social indifference. However, none of the lyrics are overbearing – Eno’s delivery is one of dark comedy; he’s not one of the callous onlookers, but he can still comment on them while existing away from the event. The song plays for over five minutes, repeats only two chords, but remains extremely listenable, especially because of the rising and falling vocal melody leading into an instrumental break of over three minutes. I hesitate to call this a guitar solo; the elements are there, but the dueling guitar and keyboard work serve as more of a textual piece than a technical showcase. Sound ebbs and flows, attacks and retreats, and if anything, it’s pure sensory joy to listen to on headphones. All of this dropped in the middle of a pop song. It’s full of bizarre concepts, but this song is amazing.

No. 2 from “Here Come the Warm Jets” is the title track and album closer. A largely instrumental piece, this one signals the work that was to come from Eno – highly sophisticated soundscapes that rely more on sound than lyrical sentiment to achieve a semblance of meaning. The song opens with a double-tracked guitar line that can be described only as majestic, but ever so softly the sounds of slowed-down wind chimes become apparent, and their arrival seems to signify some sort of looming dread. This tension builds with the slow fade-in of aggressive drumming slowly catching up to the tempo of the guitars. This dragging drumline eventually comes into sync with the piece, creating, for me, a feeling of unabashed euphoria that I’m not ashamed to admit needing in my day to day life. Just when the highest of highs seems to have been met, an indecipherable vocal line begins. Why? Who knows, but it sounds good and exists as a reassuring force over the song. Everything may have gotten a little out of control for a while, but these voices seem to ground the song, to remind the listener that humans made this. The world might be crazy, but calm down kids, because Brian’s here to fix everything. Put this one on, make your own meaning and revel in the power of music.

No. 3 comes from Eno’s loosely conceptual 1974 release, “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).” The song, “Third Uncle,” is post-punk before punk ever happened. The song is as manic as anything Eno created – all bass guitar on digital delay, propulsive drumming and crisp guitar attacks that sound like the verse work of the Velvet Underground’s “I Can’t Stand It” on speed. The song retains the same energy throughout, while lead guitar work snakes in and out of “where’d the floor go” keyboards and lyrics chanted in triplets. It sounds like trees falling over, buildings collapsing, oceans emptying – it’s the sound of Eno cutting completely loose and letting his aggressive side get hold of the composition. While it’s the last time we’d hear him that way, it was time for him to make something new.

Maybe Eno grew up a little between the recordings of “Taking Tiger Mountain…” and 1975’s “Another Green World.” Maybe he began to tire of pop music in his mastery of the form. Maybe he had recognized the need to slow down before the self-destructive curve came up in his road. Whatever the reasons, “Another Green World” benefits from an even tighter focus on sound and its effects on the human mind. In my opinion, this album is the epitome of musical artwork. While there are a few excellent, conventionally structured songs sprinkled throughout (“St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Everything Merges with the Night” are my favorite two), the bulk of the album, its real cohesive element, is a number of instrumental pieces. These, like “Sky Saw,” “In Dark Trees,” “Sombre Reptiles,” “Little Fishes,” and “The Big Ship” are Eno’s sonic paintings – in listening to these compositions, the emotions evoked match perfectly with their titles. Think about it: with these impressionistic instrumentals Eno discards language and still transmits ideas concisely. His awareness of his ability and his control of the recording studio were that focused.

The record plays like a waking dream; it’s not quite as brash as its predecessors, but unlike its ambient counterparts to come, it’s something that can’t be ignored as a background soundtrack to life. The album demands attention, and the sonic rewards reaped from actually listening, and I mean really listening, to this album are unparalleled. As I’m sure it’s become apparent, this is not only my favorite Eno album, but ranks high in my favorite albums of all time.

I can’t help but feel as if attempting to highlight only a track or two from it may be doing a disservice. In the opening, I conceded to the claim that no one has time to listen to records anymore, but really, if you consider yourself an appreciator of music, of art, of life, make the time for this album. It’s really that important. Number four on my list of essential Eno – Another Green World” in its awe-inspiring entirety.

Go ahead now, everybody, listen to some Brian Eno. You might not get it right away; there’s a lot to take in, but keep trying. What else is there in life but to appreciate art? Make some sacrifice and be assured of humanity through appreciating the beauty of creation. I don’t know – lie on the floor, stare at the sky through the window and listen to “Another Green World” on headphones. You’ll get up, at least for a few moments, appreciating everything that much more.