If you were to dig through a random neighbor’s record collection, chances are you’d come across something with Brian Eno’s fingerprints on it. Maybe massive-selling offerings by Coldplay or U2, the still commercially viable art-rock of The Talking Heads and Devo — or, if your neighbor is anything like a TMT reader, perhaps there are a few Roxy Music albums, the Eno-curated No New York no-wave compilation, Bowie’s Krautrock-leaning “Berlin Trilogy,” or My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Eno’s 1981 collaboration with the Head’s David Byrne, often considered one of the first records to fully combine electronics, sampling, and divergent world music sounds.
Few artists have been all things to all people. Eno has achieved complete artistic respect while also managing to sell a boatload of records, appealing as much to your weirdo, new age-loving uncle as to your bone-through-the-nose punk rock cousin. His own solo work has been nearly as varied, with early records like Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) pioneering electronic-influenced glam-pop, while his ambient series, Music for… various places, began his quest to change the way listeners perceive music, leading him down the road of multi-media presentation and soundtrack work.
Eno’s last album proper, Another Day on Earth, was touted as his return to pop song form. His latest, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, is his first for the unshakably hip Warp label. It doesn’t follow the pop format suite, nor does it retreat entirely into his world of pure sound, either. Aided by guitarist Leo Abrahams and keyboardist Jon Hopkins, both held over from Another Day on Earth, Small Craft strikes an odd balance, alternately serene and fiercely coiled, given to listless, floating synths and driving beats.
“2 Forms of Anger” pulses and stammers before erupting and locking into a Krautrock choke-hold for the last minute, with Abrahams’ distorted guitar sounding thin and violent. “Horse” finds the combo working in the same mold, terse and aggressive. The record doesn’t get this worked up again, which is not to say that it doesn’t get as rhythmic. “Flint March” and “Dust Shuffle” earn the record its spot on the Warp roster, recalling vintage Aphex Twin. “Paleosonic” struts with a style not often associated with 62-year-old record producers. Elsewhere, “Bone Jump” exists somewhere between a King Tubby record and an 80s horror movie soundtrack. It’s charmingly retro, with its analog synths and quaint, almost playful melody.
For the rest of the record, Eno seems content to lull away. It isn’t an entirely unwise choice; opening combo “Emerald and Lime” and “Complex Heaven” are prime Eno, minimal and haunting, owing more to the subdued format of Another Green World than Eno’s more oblique ambient series. Tracks like “Lesser Heaven” and “Calcium Needles” aren’t lackluster, exactly, but they certainly feel more indebted to Eno’s past than the record’s best moments, like “Invisible,” which bubbles up with found sound and haunting chords, Eno’s ambient trademark sounding more modern and fresh than ever.
The last thing Brian Eno needs to do is cement his place in music. With Small Craft on a Milk Sea, he doesn’t bother trying. There’s no radical reinvention here, and there hardly needs to be, but there is a surprising jolt of vitality. Eno clearly continues to make art to make art; though he’s known best for his all-star production credits — or his “Oblique Strategies” cards or the “Microsoft sound” — Eno’s true strength has always been in his ability to constantly create, to constantly make good noise. Small Craft on a Milk Sea finds him doing exactly that, and the results are at worst incredibly listenable, and at best utterly invigorating.