Let us now praise Brian Eno, today’s birthday boy, 66 today. It would be easy enough to go back to those four great LPs Eno released from 1973-78, the albums that form the core of his “pop” or “rock” output, as those are the albums with lyrics and vocals and session people like Phil Manzanera, John Cale, Phil Collins, Robert Fripp, and so on. The track I would most likely pick is the lyrical and haunting “Everything Merges with the Night” from Another Green World (1975), my favorite Eno album and the one that best combines his song-writing with his trademark ambient music.
The latter genre makes up the majority of Eno albums, wonderfully spacey recordings that tend to float somewhere on the edges of one’s consciousness while they’re playing. My favorite (I’ve heard very few of the many there are) is Music for Airports (1978) and it’s as unique a piece of music as one could find. It actually sounds like your brain sounds when it’s zoning out whilst in transit. That dreamy, disconnected vibe that hums along under the surface of things. Under the airwaves.
Recently, Eno released Lux (2012) which takes me back to that earlier album and comes beautifully packaged to boot. But I’m not going to strain myself trying to describe these pieces on “the play of light,” rather, I’m taking the song that does the most for me of the four tracks that do a lot for me on Another Day on Earth (2005). I’m trying to stay out of the Seventies, you see, and it seems to me fitting to do so for those artists who have released high quality work in the 21st century. Eno’s Another Day harkens to Another Green World (in title, and in coming along 30 years after the earlier album) and so was a pleasant excursion in a form of music that only Eno can compose: the Eno song.
I should say, though, that Eno has collaborated memorably with others, and of course is a valued producer too. In 2008, he and yesterday’s birthday boy David Byrne put out Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, which was largely comprised of tunes Eno wrote and lyrics Byrne wrote. Eno, it seems, has trouble with lyrics. In his heyday—Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy (1974)—he produced some truly surrealist nursery rhymey type things. Great fun. And he has a way with a phrase and how to give a phrase weight in a song, but he definitely is a man of few words when it comes to his output of lyrics.
And yet all the songs on Another Day have some words at least. Mainly they feature the kind of aural textures for which Eno is famed together with his rather undemonstrative, meditative vocals. I like the voice on “Under” particularly, and the sweep of the song is so ripely melancholic—I feel my heart melting everytime I hear it. The drum pattern is from a real drummer, and everything else happening is pretty much Eno layering on the Eno (after all this is the guy whose credits on John Cale’s Fear are worded thus, Eno: Eno), but the way he lifts his voice on the second syllable of “un-der” is the whole thing. The song is about going under but—no—remaining instead. The theme of the album, to me, was about celebrating “another day on earth” (how many do we have left?) at the same time as one sadly acknowledges, “not nearly so many as we might like.”
It’s possible that Eno, at 59 when the album came out, was starting to face the old urges of mortality bit, and, these things being contagious, he passed the mood on to me, rightly enough. I was not yet 46 when I first heard it, but, still. The sense of lateness was in the air, if only because it was the beginning of the sense that the earth itself might not have as many days left as we imagined. But I don’t think the album is a downer. It’s elegiac in the best sense, a soundtrack for deep thinking about whatever you think matters.
The part that kills me, on that score, is the final lines: This is the way I took it through, / Just when I think I’m going under / This is the way I thought it through / This is the way I took it under.
“Going under” could be passing out, falling asleep, giving up, giving in, going down for the count, in one way or another, but then “this is the way I thought it through” is the line that floats in my psyche like a mantra. In 2005, that was manna. I was still thinking through a big project, the kind that can make you lose heart entirely when you don’t know where it might go, or might leave you. You could go under. But “the way I took it under” leads me to think of “under consideration.” Thinking through and considering. Who writes songs about such things? Eno, that’s who.
The video with the song is very nice. Great colors, nice bleeds of images. It reminds me, with the angel statue, of Wings of Desire, by Wim Wenders, and also Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Neither bad things to be reminded of in the sense of “what comes after.” Me, I’m no afterworldsman (to borrow Nietzsche’s phrase), but. Where word and sense are torn asunder / Here was the place I chose to stand / Just when I think I’m going under / I . . . remain. There’s a lot of rueful acknowledgement in those words, to me. If you’ve ever been someone’s parent, you probably have a better idea of the kind of feeling I mean. There’s a moment when you might not care to remain but, if you do, you do it because of someone else. And I say “rueful”—some might find that needing to be needed joyous—because what I hear acknowledged is the sense of having to accept “the place I chose to stand” as defining, unable to be wished away, now. A lex aeterna.
So. We’re still here. “All near the steam and summer view”—which gives me chills, heard in the right mood, the mood of wandering a city street, mostly empty in the rich twilight, and feeling the breath of being as not merely your own.
Many happy returns, Eno.
Many happy returns, Eno.