How is Brian Eno still finding uncharted waters after half a century spent making music? On The Ship, his first solo album in four years, Eno fuses his signature yawning soundscapes and substantive vocal work for the first time. The result is an album that occupies a space somewhere in between the ambient realm Eno helped to define and traditional songcraft. Its two major pieces meander, unmoored from rhythm and narrative, but they also demand your attention.
Of course, it’s not like Eno just holed up in his breakfast nook and jotted down the lyrics making up The Ship in a spare notepad — that’d be a little too simple. Instead, he fed dozens and dozens of texts into a Markov chain generator written by his frequent collaborator Peter Chilvers, many of them orbiting around a few key topics: soldiers’ songs from the First World War, accounts from the sinking of the Titanic, disclaimers inserted at the bottom of emails. The interesting phrases he salvaged from the resulting mess ended up on The Ship, brought to life by Eno’s sonorous voice.
On the title track and "Fickle Sun (i)," the specific words matter less than their textural properties and positions in space. Eno initially conceived of The Ship as a three-dimensional piece — "I thought, ‘Oh, what about making a song that you could walk around inside,’" he told Rolling Stone — and the illusion holds up even if you’re just experiencing it through headphones. (It’ll be possible to wander "through" the album at selected installations after its release.)
Like a whale slowly swimming through flotsam and jetsam, he sings his way past sampled snippets: people talking in the distance, what sounds like a newscast, sub-human voices. Both tracks are menacing the way a thundercloud on the horizon is menacing: they’re towering, grey, uncertain. That’s a reflection of the way Eno sees the world, in particular the hubristic cycle that leads to so many of the world’s great tragedies. "The Titanic was the ship that could never sink and… the First World War was the war that we couldn’t possibly lose — this mentality suffused powerful men," said Eno in an interview with The New York Times. "They get this idea that, ‘We’re unstoppable, so therefore, we’ll go ahead and do it…’ And they can’t."
After 40 minutes of randomly generated doom and gloom, the album threatens to swallow you — and then it doesn’t. The Ship ends with a surprise, a warm and reverent cover of The Velvet Underground’s "I’m Set Free" that’s full of rich harmony. It’s some of the most straightforward and pleasant music Eno has recorded in years; if you want to continue the nautical theme, it’s the sun rising over a distant shore when you haven’t seen land for months. And at the end of an album so interested in monkeying with the voice and its ability to create meaning, it feels like a reminder of the simple power of a melody we can make ourselves.
When you hear Eno in new music, it has less to do with a specific sound than with a certain kind of exploratory spirit, a curiosity and openness about the relationship between sound and the world. I’ve spent much of my spare time this month with two recent records that sound nothing alike but share that essential quality. The first is Il, the debut album by the Montreal pianist Jean-Michel Blais. He works in the tradition of piano-based minimalists like Philip Glass and Erik Satie, artists whose music is just as suited to background listening as it is focused digestion. (Think about Eno’s famous definition of ambient music — it "must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting" — and compare it to Satie’s "furniture music," compositions designed to live in the background some 60 years earlier.)
Blais was classically trained as a teenager, and Il features both astonishing flurries of notes and graceful pacing. It never feels sterile, even at its most stuffy, and that’s the key to its success: it contains more than just the notes. The album is studded with field recordings and idle noise, and some of its most exciting sequences are dependent on physical presence: Blais’ breath, the thudding and clacking of the piano’s keys and pedals, the heavy air of the room in which he’s playing. And his collaboration with the producer BUFFLO on "Nostos" reminds me of Eno’s work with another beloved minimalist, Harold Budd, on albums like 1980’s Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror. Blais tosses out complex passages like snowflakes in a blizzard and they start to blur together into dreamy waves, losing their shape before fading out entirely. It’s thrilling, versatile music.
You’ll have a harder time letting Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s work run in the background. Her new LP EARS is colorful, and humid, each song bubbling and chirping like a rainforest. (Some remind me of scum bubbling on a pond, teeming with tiny life — this is a compliment.) Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson opened his review of the album by comparing it to one of Eno’s collaborations with the trumpeter Jon Hassell, Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics. It’s just one of dozens of influences you can point to within EARS, a consequence of its extreme business. You can hear the electric vocal manipulation of Björk and The Knife in one moment and the proto-new-age synth doodling of Suzanne Ciani in the next. (Ciani and Smith are friends and collaborators.) There’s a moment in the middle of "When I Try, I’m Full" that sounds just like M.I.A.’s "Boyz," a connection I hope is intentional.
If Smith has a signature, it’s her fondness for the revered and strange Buchla family of synthesizers, a group of instruments with robust experimental roots and a cult following. When she talks about her relationship with the instrument in interviews, she makes it sound more like a sentient collaborator than a tool she uses. She told Pitchfork "it’s taught [her] a lot of patience;" in conversation with AdHoc, she described a live performance where her Music Easel "made a sound that I don’t know how it made it, and I don’t know how to get it to make it again." Her music’s much too active to be considered ambient, but it rings with the same inquisitive impulse: the desire to play with sound, to test its boundaries and find something new.
All three of the albums above invite the use of natural imagery, and there’s an idea I can’t shake when I listen to them next to each other: saplings framing an ancient oak, their roots intertwining below the ground in ways we can’t fully understand. They’re connected at an essential level, one you can feel even if you can’t always hear it. And if you don’t feel like diving into that connection, you can just pick your favorite and work it into your Sunday morning rotation. Any of them can bend and worm their way into the spaces in your life that could use a little music.