|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
Notes for an Eno Year
The diva of late-marxist aestheticians, Theodore Adorno, once wrote that "The bourgeoisie likes its art lush (üppig) and life ascetic; the other way around would be better." There is no great lack of ascetic artists nowadays -- Adorno's own faves were Beckett and Schoenberg -- but that lush, sumptuous life seems ever more evasive. This opposition is typical of capitalist society and its dialectical imagination; to my mind, only two individuals (artists, as we know them) have clearly seen their way past it: Russia's revolutionary prophet, the constructivist El Lissitzky, and now the pop wizard Eno.
For those folks who haven't been keeping close tabs on Brian Eno, a little background info might be useful. Eno followed the not atypical path from English art school to English rock band, bridged by a continuing fascination with new music. I don't know much of his leanings in the visual arts, but in music most of his exploits make his gig with Roxy Music seem pretty derriere. He has been involved in both the Scratch Orchestra and the Portsmouth Sinfonia, and worked with composers like Cornelius Cardew, Christian Wolf, Christopher Hobbs and Gavin Bryars, as well as that notorious renegade from Aaron Copland's tutelage, John Cale.
In the last fivey ears Eno and his bag of oblique strategies have shown up on at least 25 albums; he has published a couple of books, founded his own label (Obscure Records), and is building a studio with Robert Wyatt and Phil Manzanera. While some of those 25 albums are worth at most one listen -- the persistent problem with recording aleatory music, a strong tendency in Eno's milieu, is that once it's down on wax it doesn't change again till the record wears out -- most of the stuff is pretty solid, such as the three latest John Cale workouts, Robert Calvert's weird Lucky Lief and the Longships, Gavin Bryars' fittingly murky Sinking of the Titanic, Phil Manzanera's eclectic Diamond Head, and Quiet Sun's improvisatory Mainstream. And Robert Wyatt's Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard is simply a masterpiece, even if a very strange one, indeed.
The best, of course, are the Eno albums proper: the multi-textured broil of Here Come the Warm Jets, the opaque plasticity of Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), each with a dazzling array of curious signs and oblique suggestions. And now there's Another Green World, something very different and still very Eno. It includes 14 rather minimalist pieces, only five of which are fleshed out with lyrics. Eno's voice is clear, polite, rather self-effacing; the album is full of pleasing melodies and enticing rhythms. It wouldn't be fair to say that Another Green World is Eno's best album, but certainly it is his easiest to love.
Discreet Music (available as an import on Obscure) is another new Eno album, making use of a digital recall synthesizer and long delay tape system. It is intended as a piece that might be listened to and yet ignored, and you can have it either way. The two albums Eno did with Robert Fripp seem to operate on the same principle, which admittedly can get boring if you listen to them when you don't want to. But now and then they strike the right tone, filling the room with a lazy, peaceful ambience. (James Wolcott wrote an excellent piece on Discreet Music in April Creem, to which I can add very little.)
One final comment on the Eno/El Lissitzky comparison: on the cover of Another Green World is a detail from a painting by Tom Phillips. With a lattice of intersection lines, it has a mildly constructivist tone, but various from Lissitzky's work mainly in color. Lissitzky kept to black and white, with an occasional touch of red. Eno seems interested in broadening that regime, in adding a little green. As Wayne Robins has put it, Eno "Makes music you can live with." So play an Eno album for a friend. Spread the word. Green worlds for everyone.