Built For Airports: The Importance And Frustration Of Brian Eno

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It’s almost difficult to believe that, in 2010, Brian Eno is releasing his first album for Warp Records. Warp, founded over 20 years ago in Sheffield, has at one point or another hosted just about every earth-shaking electronic artist that’s come about since the label’s inception. Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Flying Lotus, Prefuse 73, Boards of Canada, and Autechre are but a few of the groundbreaking musicians to have released material under the Warp imprint. Seems only natural that Brian Eno, an innovator in processed music going on five decades, would fit right into their esteemed ranks.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that Eno’s contribution to the Warp catalog doesn’t rank with his best work. Small Craft on a Milk Sea has its inspired moments – plenty of them, in fact – but Eno’s indecisiveness about the album’s concept hampers its cohesiveness. Reportedly, Eno told collaborators Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams to imagine what pop music of the future would sound like and compose accordingly — a noble, if a tad obvious, idea and one that would probably make for some intriguing music. Yet other sections of the album are comprised of leftover tracks from Eno’s score to Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones.

The resulting hodgepodge makes for a curiously disjointed album, especially when you consider that it comes from an artist who truly knew how to nail down a concept once upon a time. Supposedly, the middle of the album is the “pop music of the future” segment, yet it plays as nothing more than stale IDM, a style that long ago saw its star fade. Music of the future this is most assuredly not, and you’d think someone at Warp, a label that made its name on IDM, would have tried to nudge Eno in a different direction. “Bone Jump” basically rehashes Boards of Canada’s “Roygbiv.” “Horse” is the sort of jumpy electronic music you used to hear in movies like Enemy of the State where it would be set against manic edits of techno-geeks wearing black-rimmed glasses and processing great swathes of data. Most worthwhile electronic artists abandoned this method long ago, not because it was bad, but because it was done.

So the would-be ambitious segment of Small Craft on a Milk Sea is regrettable, which makes it all the more ironic that the section that features Eno’s outtakes is by far more enjoyable. What’s more, it should be easier to recognize for longtime Eno fans. When Small Craft on a Milk Sea works, it successfully channels the halcyon textures of some of his landmark works, specifically Another Green World and Music For Airports. “Lesser Heaven” glides by majestically, attaining the sort of serene atmosphere that only Eno can truly cultivate. “Calcium Needles” is more insidious, relying on sinister, reverberating bells set against ominous winds, but the results are equally hypnotic. “Lake Anthropocene” is simply eight minutes of pure ethereal bliss.

This is the same Brian Eno that first captured my attention in 2002. A friend of mine from my freshman dorm told me he had been, and planned to continue, studying for his finals to the barely there strains of Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports. I had been relying on Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister to get me through my studying (wordy and occasionally rollicking it may be, IYFS still has a pretty damn low mix, making it perfectly unobtrusive for those who want to learn with minimal distractions), and was interested in finding more understated music to make the process of information-cramming more palatable. And holy hell did Music For Airports hit that sweet spot. Four lengthy tracks of measured, endlessly soothing music designed to feel interminable in the most comforting way; this was my first proper and deliberate foray into the world of ambient music. Little did I know, it was practically everyone else’s, including Eno’s.

Anyone who’s heard Another Green World (1975) or Before and After Science (1977) knows that Music For Airports (1978) wasn’t the first time Eno made ambient music. “The Big Ship” or “Becalmed” or “Julie With…” or “By This River” are all small-scale masterpieces of the form. Hell, 1975’s Discreet Music is probably, technically Eno’s first truly ambient album, but Music For Airports is his first time fully embracing the concept. Eno is widely considered to be the original ambient artist, which is especially impressive in light of his many other accomplishments.

As his experiments with atmospheric music illustrate, Brian Eno was never really a product of his times. Rather, Eno forced his times to acquiesce to him. Nearly every important development in popular music from the early seventies until the mid-eighties had Brian Eno’s fingerprints on it. He, along with David Byrne, wedged world music into the growing field of electronic music with 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a stylistic innovation that may prove to be his most prescient. His first venture onto the public stage came in the form of Roxy Music, one of the foremost purveyors of glam rock. After clashing with front man Bryan Ferry, Eno left Roxy Music and hasn’t been in a band since, and thank god for that. Eno’s just one of those artists who should follow his own muse without being second-guessed.

Of course, that latter point suggests that Eno is a prickly artiste, one unsuited for collaboration, when nothing could be further from the truth. Arguably, David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2, Devo, and even Coldplay put out their best work with Eno guiding them into previously unexplored territory. But the flood of mind-blowing albums that came from Eno in the immediate aftermath of Roxy Music suggests that Eno couldn’t wait to strike out on his own. After knocking out a quick loop-based album with Robert Fripp (1973’s No Pussyfooting), Eno released Here Come the Warm Jets, an album most assuredly unaffected by compromised visions.

There’s truly nothing like it. Eno has certainly been influential, but a lot of his best work has been too personal, too uniquely him to even allow for imitators. Here Come the Warm Jets is the ultimate example. Freed from the mainstream ambitions of Roxy Music, Eno writes, plays, and records on the album like someone who wants to go in every direction at once, and only he can make it sound so organized. There may be a world of stylistic difference between the demented pop of “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch” and the lovely, elegiac “Some of Them Are Old”, but it takes all kinds on Here Come the Warm Jets. And it all melds together brilliantly under Eno’s warped yet accessible musical logic.

Amazingly, Eno was just getting started. In the ensuing half decade, Eno released three more critically adored albums (Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, and Before and After Science) before entering his ambient phase. If any album portended Eno’s later innovations, it would be Another Green World, an album largely comprised of delicate instrumentals. “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “I’ll Come Running” are fantastically catchy diversions from the ethereal rule, but Another Green World’s claim to greatness comes from Eno’s ability to create unearthly worlds of gorgeous noise in the space of two-to-three minutes. “In Dark Trees” and “Sombre Reptiles” are shadowy compositions fleshed out with mysterious rumbling percussion and the sort of piercing guitar work that is a minor trademark of Eno’s. “Zawinul/Lava” predicts the patient, spare pianos of Music For Airport’s “1/1”, which segues perfectly into the heart-stoppingly gorgeous, tranquil masterpiece “Everything Merges With the Night.”

It’s amusing to think that the madcap craftsman responsible for the erratic, abrasive pop dementia of Here Come the Warm Jets would quickly morph into the meticulous artisan behind the serene, painstakingly detailed creations of Another Green World and Music For Airports. Thirty years later, it’s clear that Eno has most effectively retained the principles that helped him produce the latter albums. There’s no trace of the wild-eyed eccentric of HCTWJ on Small Craft on a Milk Sea, yet the breadth of Eno’s career and the sum of his innovations has allowed him to jettison important and beloved facets of his persona without anyone missing them too much.