For the liner notes for his 1978 album, Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Brian Eno concluded with the sentence: “Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
Eno is a man of his word; almost 40 years later with his latest offering, The Ship, he has stuck faithfully to his ambient maxim. There is something distinctly millenarian about this recording, imbued as it is with a portentousness. The Ship – or rather, our world – is sinking, is the message.
As Eno’s first solo album since 2012, it was recently described by Rolling Stone magazine as “a universe of sound frozen in slow motion, melting to reveal and revel in new layers of dreamlike impressions”. Now that’s some kind of spiel, revelling in its own vacuousness, but with an Eno product its easy to fall into the word trap as one attempts to appraise the indescribable.
As a major contributor to ambient music and having worked with Roxy Music, Robert Fripp, Bowie and David Byrne over the years, Eno has recorded an album that is a grand enclosure of mood. Picture it as you listen. A harbour at dawn. It’s a mood of a world awakening. But there I go, falling headlong into the word trap.
The LP’s concept is admirable and it should be listened to in quieter, English moments, beneath a low, grey sky (under which, perhaps, it was recorded). The vibe is wholly dystopian, the title abstract. It’s an opus arranged in four parts, the first three – ‘The Ship’ (possessing a “wave after wave” mantra), ‘Fickle Sun’ and ‘The Hour Is Thin’ – gelling uncomfortably well, with ‘The Hour Is Thin’ finding British comedian Peter Serafinowicz intoning like Captain Jean-Luc Picard reading the 9 O’Clock News, his delivery helping to oxygenate the blank verse. The fourth, curiously, is a cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Set Free’.
It’s an album that is difficult to dislike, despite its end of days shofar-fuelled cacophony with which its second movement ends. Says Eno, of the album as a whole, it “experiments with three dimensional recording techniques” as “humankind seems to teeter between hubris and paranoia”. As does the album. It irks as a soundscape that might float out through Teddington windows on warm summer evenings, unsettling the complacent burghers. There is no sun in this recording, but there is a tolling of a bell after which we’d all be foolish to ask.
Yet with this album, Eno continues to send the message to other recording artists with as much time, resources and experience as he that it is worth experimenting with the album form, rather than – like Pavlovian dogs – continuing to churn out three-minute dirges for radio stations the public long ago shunned for their output of commercialised crap. Eno can see the horizon on which, no doubt, floats his doomed ship, and if his contemporaries were as capable as he, we’d be living in far more interesting musical times.
The Ship is released on 29th April via Warp Records.