Thursday, 19 January 2012

Modern Man: Brian Eno

There was a time in 1995 when many people were listening to Brian Eno without even realising it. Every time they switched on their Windows computer in fact. Eno had been tasked with composing the 3 1/4 second musical cue that would play every time the hardware loaded. He confessed to actually recording the piece on an Apple Mac, stating that he disliked the machines put out by his newest employer.

  As a musician, Eno has always embraced both technology and the opportunity for exploring ever more unusual and fertile avenues in sound. As early as 1978 he wrote a composition devised to be played on a permanent loop in airports and thereby subtly alter the mood of bustling terminals from chaos to calm. It is an example of the genre of ambient music that he was instrumental in founding. With it Eno anticipated and may in fact have helped to create our present, where music is no longer necessarily conceived of as a discrete unit to be occasionally digested so much as a constantly fluctuating cascade of beautiful or cacophonous noises emanating from our whole environment, loudspeakers to Spotify to mobile phones.

 The ubiquity and simultaneous anonymity that the Windows venture brought him were also nothing new for him; ever since his beginnings in the industry, Eno was a chameleonic and enigmatic force in the musical world. A veritable wizard of Oz, making magic behind the closed curtain of his production studio, and the Emerald City of his creation is the musical landscape of the past forty years.

  Starting out as a member of louche, lusty glam-rock outfit Roxy Music, Eno initially remained backstage on the mixing desk. When he did eventually join the others out front, the outrageously flamboyant and transgressively feminine costumes he wore meant that he effectively kept his professional aura of mystery. These were the first indications of what the word Eno would come to denote: something created in the moment of its performative space, resisting final definition, but endlessly compelling.

  When he first embarked upon a solo career a few years later, Eno developed his role as master-of-sounds from his days on the mixing-deck, playing about with the instrumental tracks laid down by such notable musicians as Robert Fripp and (ahem) a pre-Genesis, pre-atrocity Phil Collins. His earliest release in 1973 is everything you’d expect from someone as potentially pretentious and undeniably brilliant: the ultimate art-rock album, Here Come The Warm Jets. It showcases perhaps better than anything Eno’s propensity for twisting guitar music and pop structures in manners propulsive, parochial and perverse. It also established a template for his admirable skill at investing popular music with intellect whilst retaining the irreverent fun and seductive rhythm that gave it popularity in the first place. However, it’s his third album Another Green World that is widely considered his masterpiece, Eno incorporating the textures of ambient music into his signature odd pop. The result is more obviously serious than ever before: rather than merely augmenting reality (decades before the iPhone app did the same thing) as he had done with Music for Airports, he forms a new one: an entire pastoral universe filled with flora and fauna, where he adopts the role of a genial Pan. It’s an expression often bandied around, but World really is an album you can get lost inside, and it feels like a mini-holiday.

  However, it’s his work as a producer and collaborations with other artists that demonstrate his alchemical genius best. Most recently he’s been credited with granting Coldplay another lease of life by drawing them away from their dreary, sub-Radiohead safety zone to the sunnier climes of Mylo Xyloto, which is apparently quite good if you like that sort of thing…(Source of information: Father Pierce.) 

  More importantly, he’s the man who took David Bowie to another plane of excellence with the ‘Berlin trilogy’ of albums, named after the Cold War-era city in which they were recorded. We can presumably thank Eno for giving free rein to the seventies icon’s experimental side. It is only with the arrival of their first team-up Low (1977) that Bowie moves away from more traditional songwriting towards soundscapes of fractured, abrasive and frightening electronica that reflect the divided geography of their birthplace and foreshadow another genre of the future: industrial. Listening to Low now is like witnessing a head-on collision between two distinctive brains, ideas flying violently like sparks off a chassis, and ultimately igniting.

  But the desert island disc, the one that stands tallest and brightest in the Eno canon, is the masterwork he produced in 1980 with another incorrigible innovator, David Byrne, and the rest of the Talking Heads. Remain in Light is the band’s magnum opus and although their prior work amply showcases their enormous personality and songwriting chops, it’s incontestable that they blossomed only with the addition of Eno to their number as both performer and head wizard. The source of its impact is Eno’s introduction of world music into the equation, but not in the tokenistic manner of a Sting record where a few sitars are sprinkled tastefully around like pot pourri in some tantric love-den that nightmares are made of. Instead, the rhythms and instrumentation of Africa and Asia are woven into a multicoloured tapestry on tracks like ‘Listening Wind’ so that they become part of a whole that feels organic, unpredictable and utterly sui generis. Everyone knows ‘Once in a Lifetime’, the closest the album comes to chart-friendly, but ‘The Great Curve’ is the standout; six and a half minutes of sinuous multi-layered drum beats, jubilant brass, ecstatic vocals and two gigantic, plunging electric guitar solos. Ecstatic? Gigantic? Plunging? The adjectives don’t lie; this song sounds like the horniest sex of all time.

  From the kaleidoscopic artistry of Remain in Light to the digital minutiae of Microsoft might seem like a shrinking of ambition, but really it’s all part of the bigger picture of Brian Eno, a man intent on changing music and the way music changes us. It’s his world, we’re just listening to it.