An experimental icon’s latest brilliant illusion
For more than four decades, beginning with 1975’s Discreet Music, Brian Eno’s solo works have presented a universe of sound frozen in slow motion, melting to reveal and revel in new layers of dreamlike impressions. Eno redefined minimalism with his 1978 LP Ambient 1: Music for Airports and on nearly two-dozen solo offerings that followed. His latest, The Ship, is a variation on the typical Eno theme, the next warm period in his glacial unthawing, and it’s one of his more interesting works. Where his last release, 2012’s Lux, seemed like a brighter distant cousin of Music for Airports, The Ship finds Eno combining ambience with his own voice for the first time. He’s billed it as a sort of “musical novel” – a loose story collage inspired by the Titanic sinking, World War I and random throwaway lines from emails and his own writing – but it’s not so much what he or his computer or his comedian friend and collaborator Peter Serafinowicz say on the record that matters as much as how it feels.
The LP’s first half, the 20-plus-minute “The Ship,” spends six minutes bathing listeners in slow-mo glimmering synths and distant sounds that resemble pan pipes, hissing and sighing before he speaks up with a monk-like recitation that is, at least at one point, about the “illusion of control.” It’s all so measured that it’s easier to absorb the sounds than it is to process them. The only words that matter are “wave after wave after wave,” because of the way it all washes over listeners. Regardless of what he intends with the lyrics, the song is always about getting lost in the sound. It’s captivating and easy.
The second half, a three-movement suite dubbed “Fickle Sun,” has more meat. The 18-minute first part picks up the ambient meandering of “The Ship” but gradually (always gradually) builds to a dream-pop poem that he created by feeding text into a computer and allowing it do with it what it wanted. Again, it’s not the words but the music that matters: heavy jabs of melody that resemble a brass section pounding midway through, electric wasp-like buzzing, understated echoes of something. The second section, “The Hour Is Thin,” finds Serafinowicz reciting more computer-generated verses as a spoken-word interlude and is the only misstep on the LP because it jars listeners from the safe, secure chamber of sound Eno worked so hard to build. But he ends it eloquently enough with a relatively traditional cover of the Velvet Underground’s quixotic “I’m Set Free,” a song notable to Eno for Lou Reed’s revelation, “I’m set free to find a new illusion.”
Eno is always looking for that new fantasy, a look into the shadow world that’s fascinated him for so long. The Ship is just his latest interpretation of his vision, his constantly changing illusion, and it’s also one of his most accessible albums in recent years.”