Once again, I’m cycling around to one of my all time favorite records – John Cale & Brian Eno’s Wrong Way Up. Cale and Eno, of course, are the ideal mashup, having flown in the same arty circles for decades. This reflects the best of both artists with very little of the usual attendant weirdness. I’m told that one of the songs here was even a minor hit, which is barely conceivable. I guess Eno does have a magic touch for producing great records that sound accessible as pop even when they’re the furthest possible thing. And John Cale hates pop but is secretly really good at it. Therefore, a match made in heaven.
On days of stress and frustration, where to turn? Perhaps Brian Eno, in a twilight between pure ambiance and pop, is just the man to relax my frazzled mind. There’s something almost symphonic going on here, a dramatic arc that tells the story, in a song with very few words. I find it relaxing, is what I’m trying to say, and more than that, creatively elevating. It’s not about anything but it makes me feel good.
It will shine and it will shudder as I guide it with my rudder.
It being, I want to imagine, the boat you’re sailing down the Nile in. Perhaps I dreamed it, but I have a memory of seeing a film that was nothing but the banks of the Nile and the water gliding by, shot from a small craft and accompanied by Brian Eno music. It was not heavy on action, but hypnotic in its monotony. Visual ambiance, to go with Eno’s ambient music experiments. So the boat shines and shudders down the Nile, and the boat is a metaphor for your flimsy mortal carapace that you rudder down the river of life, with only a slight illusion of control, and a radio to keep you company, though you know that no one is out there to hear your SOS.
That was enough with the depressing dead people already. Brian Eno is buoyant and very much alive. The master of ambient dreamscapes is also master of jolting glam rock rebellion. Just the song to kickstart Velvet Goldmine into frantic, sequin-dazzled action. The weirdness is euphoric. Listening to Brian Eno is a lifestyle choice, a secret identity that may or may not come with a taste for purple berets.
Brian Eno, being saddled with the ‘art rock’ label, sometimes gets dismissed as a cold intellectual, more concerned with concepts than with feelings. Obviously, this is a fallacy of a mainstream media culture that considers intellectualism and conceptuality inaccessible and therefore somehow bad. American anti-intellectualism is a powerful force with a long history that I won’t get into, and it’s not exactly been a boon to Brian Eno’s popularity. However, to anyone who’s ever actually listened to Eno’s seventies pop output, it’s clear that his songs have a great emotional capacity, as well as plenty of wit. I’d like to point to his music’s frequent appearances in movies (not just of the high-camp Velvet Goldmine variety.) I was recently impressed by Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, in which a teenage girl dies of leukemia to a soundtrack that leans heavily on Brian Eno. A few years earlier Eno’s music did a similar degree of emotional heavy lifting in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. I suppose filmmakers are drawn to using Eno because his songs are both memorable and not widely familiar. To me they are instantly recognizable and deeply familiar, but for others I imagine an encounter with an Eno song is an “OMG what is this!?” moment. Thanks to these filmmakers for making a minor trend of Eno songs as emotional punctuation. Let’s see if it brings people to Tiger Mountain.
Egghead record producer meets nerdy neurotic rock star; surreal adventures through space and time ensue. That’s my pitch for the animated sitcom mockumentary of Brian Eno’s friendship with David Byrne. I imagine a lot of time was spent drinking tea and thrift store shopping. And of course, lest we forget, musical history was made. I have come back again and again to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts – both here and IRL – and I think the case has been thoroughly made for its significance as an historical document. Besides elevating electronic music in prestige, making the use of samples a legit creative process and other broad strides forward, what they really did – the thing that makes the album so special – was to find strange beauty in the forgotten and the never-ran. I’m fairly sure that The Moving Star Hall Singers of Sea Island, Georgia were not about to change the world and were remembered by no one but themselves when Eno and Byrne recontextualized them for their own purposes. Call it musical upcycling. It’s the creation of an entirely new reality using found bits and pieces of other narratives, other realities, other moods, other contexts.
I wish Brian Eno and John Cale would get back together. They used to hang out and make records with Nico, and they’ve made one album together, and it was absolutely brilliant. But I don’t think they’ve done anything together since Wrong Way Up, which was in 1990. I understand that Brian Eno is a very busy man, and he has many obligations producing music for people whose records actually earn money, unlike John Cale’s. But come on, guys, you’re so good together! Eno did make a sort-of follow up to Bush of Ghosts with David Byrne a few years ago, which was more that I’d ever hoped for, so there’s hope here too. Not to mention that Wrong Way Up was one of Eno’s most commercially viable albums in a non-producer capacity. It’s kind of a weird thing to think about, actually – that a record that I personally love and consider a classic and listen to all the fucking time is, in the wider world, at best a weird footnote in the career of a man most people only know of as the producer of that one Coldplay album. Sads all around.