I think it’s pretty fitting that Brian Eno, one of the world’s finest producers – whose work with David Bowie, Talking Heads and Lou Reed consistently mark high points of illustrious careers, is now stuck producing an album that will almost certainly mark a career high point for himself. I’m not convinced that anyone other than Brian Eno should be allowed to produce Brian Eno records – as a producer he’s virtually unmatched by his contemporaries in technical prowess, and as an artist, I can’t see anyone being able to match the grand vision he sets out in his 18th solo album, The Ship.
This becomes apparent six minutes into the title track (and the only track on the album not named “Fickle Sun”). I found myself so totally engrossed in the track’s opening, that I almost forgot I was listening to it – it had simply become a natural part of my environment. Then, as if descending from the heavens, Eno’s deep, crooning voice breaks through the ambience. It continues to tell a story serving as a wholly appropriate backdrop to the music – “The Ship was from the willing land / The waves about it roll”.
There is no urgency in Eno’s voice, and while there are hints of sorrow (“Don’t talk that I’m frightened / Do I know exactly my husband / That I love you”) the opening track sets the kind of scene that would be perfect for an ambient karaoke night. The song shifts and fades in perfect measure for the last five minutes, interspersed with creaking, inconsistently looming synthesizers, and a sparse, robotic voice.
The remaining three tracks – the aforementioned “Fickle Suns” (I, II and III) do little to deviate from the vibe established by “The Ship”. The trepidation I felt listening to the opening track gives way to something resembling outright menace in the 18-minute “Fickle Sun (I)”, which manages to be only the second longest track on the album. The plod of the instrumental picks up the pace where “The Ship” left off, and Eno’s formerly soft baritone gives way to a deeper, fuller sound.
At this interval, I think the most appropriate description I can give this album is that it’s grey and probably best enjoyed in a dark room. This greyness is in no way a criticism, and simply reveals how excellent Brian Eno is at creating soundscapes that convey meaning – be it with the music of others, or with his own. When listening to an Eno record, you never get the impression that you’re hearing anything he doesn’t explicitly want you to hear or interpret, just as a fine filmmaker will evoke meaning through everything presented in a shot. The brashness of Fickle Sun’s brass provides a stark counterbalance to the swirling, but not incessant synths, and concludes with the same robotic voice, weighed against Eno’s natural baritone.
The second “Fickle Sun” doesn’t quite meet the standards of the first two tracks – either in quality or in length, clocking in at a frankly meagre two minutes fifty. Where its predecessor ends with a relief to the album’s pervasive menace via some simple, lofty strings, “Fickle Sun (II)” contains only a loose, minimal piano accompaniment, and a poem spoken by British actor Peter Serafinowicz on the ravages of war. Although not unwelcome, it mars an otherwise consistent album with a deviation from the established sound, and Serafinowicz’s voice cuts a rude contrast with Eno’s own.
The last track of the album is a shift again – but in a way that demonstrates everything Eno has the capacity to achieve with his music, elevating pop music to dizzying heights. “Fickle Sun (III)” is a cover of the Velvet Underground ballad “I’m Set Free.” It’s a stark reminder that had Eno not taken a one-way trip down ambient lane, all those years ago, he would probably be producing some of the most remarkable and interesting pop music around. He matches the dreaminess of the original 1969 recording, and builds on it with layers and layers of instrumentation.
Regardless of how engaged you are with ambient music (read: not very), The Ship is worth a listen. It’s not overly obscure, or difficult for the sake of difficulty, and while the lengthy track times and repetitive titles may have you waving the ‘pretentious wank’ flag early, Brian Eno has managed to craft a sophisticated, but still extremely enjoyable album. It’s probably not great music to work out to, though.
Review by Hugh Hutchison