The sinking is slow, cold and dismal like the siren call of a foghorn. Trapped in the bowels of an industrial massive, passengers and their histories are inextricably tied to their maritime casket. They move in vertical descent down a deep blue axis of perishing; in the ship’s mortality it is the closest one such Titan has ever come to humankind. It is mid-April 1912; an unsinkable ship is sinking.
As one of Brian Eno’s most outspoken zealots, I took news of his upcoming album, “The Ship,” with excitement. Eno is easily one of the most influential figures in electronic music since its initial flourishing around the ’70s, during which time he released the game-changing “Another Green World” (1975). The plastic pop abstractions on that album would foreshadow Eno’s forward-looking methodology, yet they are utterly distinct from what would constitute his output just half a decade later. His series of ambient releases would revolutionize our understandings of what he termed “discreet music,” and his marriage of subtle, intricately-built electronic spaces with tangible organic sounds gave albums like “Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics” (1980) — in collaboration with Jon Hassel — more life and dimensionality than my spatial cognition could grasp.
“Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks” (1983) is perhaps most exemplary of this face of Eno’s creative persona, and it is the closest thing to “precedent” to which “The Ship” can lay claim. “Apollo” is Eno’s idea of a soundtrack to a lunar expedition, but rather than capitalizing on the quiet calm of outer space for what would have been a lukewarm ambient LP, Eno paints the black expanses that surround our satellite with eerie, almost anxious strokes, and the alien, feral world that emerges is his impression of lunar biomass as we do not know it.
Similarly, “The Ship” is an impressionistic approach to a concept, this time a bit more historically rooted: the infamous sinking of the Titanic. And if recently Eno has thrived primarily via collaborations, his latest album since “Lux” (2012), by harnessing some of his greatest strengths, showcases him once again as a master of evocative atmospheres. For one, the dark, croaking latter half of the self-titled album opener, replete with metallic creaking and the sound of buoyant bodies, will swallow you as oceanic death itself devours the album’s expiring protagonist, rivaling in craft the oblique landscapes Eno perfected on “Ambient 4: On Land” (1982). And the noisy bowels of “Fickle Sun (I)” radiate a maddening dark energy that perfectly develops the album’s familiar theme in a wholly original way.
The return of Eno’s own vocals is particularly welcome. Eno’s vocals, an integral element of the album’s tone, have not been this critical to his music in what feels like decades. With such strong emotive value, Eno’s melancholy bellows — deep and authoritative like the sinking liner’s horn — are an essential element of the record that feels genuinely inseparable from the sound upon which it builds. This is true of both the first and the second track, the latter of which uncannily recalls something from Coil’s saturnine industrial catalogue — a good thing, mind you.
Just as the first two tracks on “The Ship” evoke the darkness of tragedy and death, the final two cuts — which I should note only represent about a sixth of the album’s runtime — evoke a sort of rebirth. The brief “Fickle Sun (II) The Hour is Thin” incorporates a moving narrative over a calm piano that recalls the earliest of Eno’s ambient pieces. Stylistically, the piece differs significantly from the LP’s massive first half, and so it seems as more of an interlude than a piece of its own. But as it quickly moves into the stirring “Fickle Sun (III) I’m Set Free” the LP’s back half develops into a meaningful — indeed indispensable — portion of the whole. As its title would suggest, the closing cut is the soundtrack to a rebirth, a sense accentuated by the piece’s poignant lyrics, uplifting instrumentation, and livelier pace. It is additional testament to Eno’s ability to effortlessly craft any desired mood and tone, and indeed I find it to be among the best tracks of its kind within his catalogue.
In all, “The Ship” is an accomplishment for Brian Eno, a bona-fide artist whose extensive catalogue of masterpieces make it understandably difficult to top his own triumphs. But this album, in its stunning recreation of a tragedy that proves rich, moving, and uplifting by turns, stresses the fact Eno is far from having lost his touch.
Artist: Brian Eno
Album: “The Ship”
Label: Warp Records
Favorite Track: “Fickle Sun (I)”
If you like: Coil, Jon Hassel, Stars of the Lid