The Lead Review: Lottie Brazier On Brian Eno’s The Ship

With Brian Eno's latest full length out on Warp tomorrow, Lottie Brazier looks at its overarching influences, including poetry, found sound, and the stillness of war.

In his Reith lecture last year, Eno approached his audience with the proposition that art is a means by which we can communicate perspectives and potential ‘possible scenarios’, evidently an idea that Eno is interested in testing through his own work. The Ship, more than on any other Eno release, has a setting and cast; presumably a war vessel and its crew. Equally one could envision a boat of refugees, the concept behind this album being vague enough to suggest this too. Instead of leaving communication down to his signature ambience, which develops and unfolds at a meticulously planned pace here, Eno chooses to vocalise and literally narrate this story. The many perspectives from which the story of ‘The Ship’ is told remain nameless throughout, but they are evocatively first personal. Although many of Eno’s previous albums are projects based on areas of interest to him, such as rural landscape on Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror and the Russian artist Sergei Shutov on The Shutov Assembly, none are as forwardly political as this new release. This album also provides a stark break from Eno’s recent work in its emphasis on vocals. Although the recent 2005 Another Day On Earth features pop vocals, The Ship gives them a far more dramatic platform.

Opener ‘The Ship’ is delivered with the clarity of someone who believes in the emotional weight of their words. Though there is no explicit message or argument to deliver here on this album; more the giving of a subjective perspective. From ‘The Ship’ the fear Eno communicates here sounds foremost like one of drowning, or the true helplessness of capsizing in an ocean. The possibility that one could be crushed under thousands of feet of water like T.S. Eliot’s Phoenician sailor in The Waste Land. These lines aren’t here just to provide some accompaniment to the melody and are as far removed from being washed out as you can imagine, his diction being precise and occasionally latent with anger. Eno’s voice is strong in the conventional sense that he can hold a melody well, and this actually works to his advantage, because it means he has good control over dynamic, and so in turn the subtle changes of the title track’s mood. Eno also is not hesitant to use a vocoder, and this effect works seamlessly with the vocal melody, aiding it rather than detracting from it. These saw-like vocals punctuate the otherwise placid musical base of this track. Here we are reminded that Eno is far more than just an ambient artist, in that he does not succumb to obvious and well trodden tropes of the genre he helped to create.

The next three tracks are sectioned off as a kind of suite or organisation of related pieces called ‘Fickle Sun’. As when a room suddenly becomes dark in evening without one realising, the mood has shifted quickly and without warning. Eno’s vocals here are plaintive and thoughtful, "All over Europe darkened still; a cumulus of pride and will". Europe is shadowed by its past; its post-WWII unification no longer stable. The mulled-over ennui of these lyrics is briefly interrupted by a horn section and violent symbols. By this point it becomes evident that the drama of The Ship builds in graduation. This isn’t the kind of album that gives away its entire mood by the end of the first track; it works best when it is listened to as a complete whole. Although each track has its own sentiment, each one seems to work as a shade to compliment the other. It it for the most part characterised by an anxious uncertainty that heaves itself into a strange relief by the time the last track completes its course. What is most satisfying about the second track here, ‘Fickle Sun (I)’, is that it is not wholly indebted to any one musical genre in particular. On ‘Fickle Sun (I)’ with its slow, often faltering pace and underlying melancholy, the vocals here seems inspired by older traditions of singing such as Gregorian chant, as the track does not have an obvious ‘beat’ to it as in pop music. However, its musical backing reveals far more contemporary influences, in particular its use of what Eno would himself call ‘found sound’. They conjure bleak nautical scenes through sounds of vulnerable wood and rope and radar bloops played out against muffled voices.

With barely any musical accompaniment to protect or strengthen it, ‘Fickle Sun (ii) The Hour Is Thin’ in particular is unlike any other Eno piece before it in that it is almost purely spoken word. The wartime imagery put across here do not seem attached to any obvious place or moment, but are still comprehensible and highly visual. And across the whole album, only small reference points such as one to Trafalgar give the album a sense of location from which it can pivot. ‘The Ship’ does not capture war in active conflict but in moments where it is filled with stillness and fear of unknown outcomes. The matter of fact, monotonous tone of the delivery makes the narrative voice here sound strangely removed as if what is told here is recounted from memory or old photographs, despite imagery of death and war. It sounds as if fractured, with lines not following on from previous ones in meaning. In particular the line ‘the phoenix broods serene’ is taken from the war poem This Is No Case Of Petty Right And Wrong by Edward Thomas, a poem which was written with the intention of presenting an alternative kind of patriotism, one as a love of one’s country without cultural or racial supremacy or hatred for other nations.

Although Eno can hold claim to having popularised ambient music, he is still not adverse to working with verse-chorus form. This closer, being a cover of The Velvet Underground song ‘I’m Set Free’, seems like a fitting tribute to the late Lou Reed. The original version sounds almost desperate, with Reed’s vocals warbling on verge of hysteria. Here, placed at the end of this album, the track sounds like a moment of relief from the quiet tension before it. It’s odd and startling hearing a cover like this, in 2016, especially from Brian Eno. That is, not for any experimental quality, but just for its beautiful, simplistic melody with words dictated seemingly by a consciousness leaving its body behind, who ‘[sees its] head laughing, rolling on the ground’. What is joyful, though, to hear in this cover is that Eno still retains the loose gentleness of the original version; although his take includes the use of strings and synths, it does not sound overwrought or bombastic, which would not work with the lyrical sentiment here. Each instrument here seems to blend into the other; they are discernible in the mix but still somewhat ambiguous.

The Ship‘s tracks balance well considered, original arrangements with vocal performances that exercise controlled emotion. Controlled, and so Eno as a singer sounds in a position of strength as a result. With true respect to its wartime narrative The Ship is not an overwrought, gaudy attempt at stirring a tear; feeling is built over the slow pace of the album and reaches its peak in its impassioned finale. The Ship is the work of someone who fully believes in the power of art as an empathic tool, as a means to invoke a particular viewpoint, an unconsidered perspective.

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