Brian Eno The Ship

[Warp; 2016]

Styles: ocean floor, medium concept, pop drone
Others: Laurie Anderson, Peter Serafinowicz, Mount Eerie, Jenny Hval, The Velvet Underground

The Ship breaks subtle ground by further fractalizing Brian Eno’s creative processes, taking two of his essential forms and blending them methodically into a new kind of strange pop. Between his ambient albums and his pop-centered releases, the ones that engage you with lyrical narrative and the ones that disengage with the listener’s focus for other aims, there’s often a clear divide of intent. The Ship is immediately notable in how it splits the difference right along the middle, applying a theatric, focused arc to its sequencing and utilizing both ambient portions symbolically and pop conventions structurally to make a multi-layered commentary piece. And while there are precedents for this work in his site-specific installations and some of his spoken word/ambient collaborations, there’s a distinct attempt at cohesive storytelling and sequencing here that feels new and undefined.

At times, it can seem as though Eno had simply set out to write the longest, slowest pop song conceivable, binary passages of vague, pseudolyrical thought rising and falling in a stretched frame of conventional storytelling, but notes on its construction show a gradual balancing of creative notions, Eno starting with sound installations and loose ideas of “waves of sound” and “a song you can walk around in” before rolling the concept halfway back out of gorgeous habit. From there, he added narrative; inspired by the sinking of the Titanic, the record takes a more mournful and pointedly critical turn with each new lyric about our hubris and “the illusion of control.”

As the narrative comes together, sequenced like a summit from the deep — the title track an ocean floor, immense, endlessly spreading — it reveals a crescendo telegraphed from the very start, anticipatory bombast buried deep in the notes, which sometimes rise to the surface and clap with distinct beeps. The ambience at the outset of the record is deceptive; it’s simply a big scope, a rocket taking off, a ship sinking, a framing device that puts the listener within a temporal scope of natural, gradual change. Eno’s masterstroke this time around is revealed as a single monolithic scene executed with absolute identity, a naturalistically-paced mass of monastic tones that amass like snow falling to a crushing gravity.

To do so, Eno utilizes both passivity and activity carefully so as not to reward or dissuade too much along its course. He’s gently guiding, minding small details as they contribute to the success of the larger mission and never forcing their emergence, Eno’s keen grasp of these two forms of songwriting allowing him to easily walk that line. “The Ship” soothes with a “recently discovered” low-C vocal hum and placid bass drones that numb the song to emotion, making the come-up of “Fickle Sun” all the more exciting in contrast. All the paranoia, tension, and nervous energy subsumed under the waves of the “Ship” come to the surface in “Fickle Sun I,” burst forth in a brassy, crashing, explosive chorus before dissipating into resonant wave patterns that never fully calm.

We scope back to Peter Serafinowicz in detached voiceover, a clarifying and also declarifying device, remarking on Trafalgar Square, protests, hate, hubris, bad news, and the war, but also speaking in gibberish, losing track, a detachment from the scene. As Brian Eno finally floats atop “I’m Set Free,” escaped blissfully from all the hatred and destruction, it feels both stolen and deeply appropriate. All in all, we’re just grateful amongst the chaos for our new illusions, the imagined spaces they offer us to fill endlessly with hope.

Links: Brian Eno - Warp

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