In the summer of 2000, I attended a mixed media art show at the Hayward Art Gallery in London, England. Sonic Boom featured exhibits by thirty different artists, but the one I remember most was Brian Eno’s “Recovery Room” – a small, enclosed space where a visitor could sit and watch pastel projections morphing in sync with the faint sounds of an ambient loop. There was nothing especially provocative about the exhibit – which, I suppose, was the point – but I was nevertheless awed… simply by the name of the artist.
In his biography On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno, (Chicago Review Press, 2008) author David Sheppard acknowledges that Eno's Sonic Boom exhibit “seemed not to differ greatly from those increasingly found in contemporary clothing boutiques or swish restaurants." He interprets this as proof that contemporary culture had finally caught up with the provocateur, who began his career as a member of the experimental glam-rock band Roxy Music. There’s no question Eno's once-maligned musical experiments have endured the test of time. As the author notes, the “ambient” music that he pioneered is now a distinct genre of music. This helps to explain Eno’s iconic status, but his biggest claim to fame is his work as a producer on high-profile pop rock albums by David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2.
Few music producers have the kind of cachet that Brian Eno has; he stands alongside music industry legends like Phil Spector, George Martin and Quincy Jones as a Svengali-esque figure who brings out the best in those he works with. Sheppard does his due diligence in sussing out Eno’s specific role on these projects, acknowledging that his contributions differ widely from project to project. “For Eno,” he says, “‘production work’ can mean anything from organization and personnel-management to hands-on playing or simply discerning overlooked seeds of ideas from which new and exotic musical blooms may be nurtured.”
In the case of David Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy,” it was the nurturing that made all the difference. When he began working with Bowie on Low (1977), Eno says, “He [Bowie] was pretty much living at the edge of his nervous system, very tense. But as often happens, that translated into a sense of complete abandon in the work. One of the things that happens when you’re going through traumatic life situations is your work becomes one of the only places where you can escape and take control. I think it’s in that sense that ‘tortured’ souls sometimes produce great work.” Sheppard observes the album is practically divided between Bowie and Eno. The more instrumental B-side (a quiet “recovery” from the heavier A-side) belongs mostly to Eno. Bowie's subsequent album Heroes (1977) fits the same mold, while Lodger (1979) shows evidence of a more pervasive mind meld. At this point, the fully-recovered Bowie moved on, as did Eno.
Sheppard suggests that this pattern repeated itself in Eno's work on a trilogy of albums with the Talking Heads (More Songs about Buildings and Food in 1977, Fear of Music in 1979, and Remain in Light in 1980) and later with U2 (beginning with The Unforgettable Fire in 1984, continuing with The Joshua Tree in 1987 and culminating with Original Soundtracks in 1995). In each instance, Eno gets involved as a provocateur – urging the musicians to loosen up and experiment with new sounds. Gradually, he forges a deep bond with the musicians, and slowly becomes an equally creative member of the band. Soon after, he begins to dominate the artistic process… which inevitably leads to "creative differences." The proof of the successful collaboration remains in the music, which prompts listeners as well as the musicians themselves to speak of a vital “trace element” in the alchemy of sound that clearly comes from Eno.
My favorite U2 songs have always been those with an Eno-esque / ambient quality. (I am one of those rare fans who truly enjoys Original Soundtracks, the album on which Eno was incorporated into U2 as a fifth member of the band.) I share David Sheppard’s opinion that, until The Unforgettable Fire, the Irish quartet’s music was often “shrill, sloganeering, evangelically tinged rock bombast.” Eno gave them a textured, transcendent quality that is now instantly recognizable as “the U2 sound.” Even when he's not present, Eno remains a vital trace element in the band's alchemy. He is the redemptive spirit in the familiar landscape... something that Sheppard's biography illustrates by focusing mainly on the producer's solo work.
When the young avant-garde artist's ambitions outgrew Roxy Music in the mid-70s, he embarked on a solo career – creating his first three albums out of musical fragments. With the third album, Another Green World (1975), he found his “voice.” Ever since then, the key to Eno's sound has been vision. Throughout the book, Sheppard hints that Eno has a condition known as synesthesia, where a person experiences one stimulus via two senses. The most common form of synesthesia is to experience sound as both a musical note and a color. (...which explains Eno’s “Recovery Room” exhibit.) Although the author doesn't give explicit examples, I can't help applying this insightful idea to specific songs. Compare, if you will, the following tracks from Eno's first album Here Come the Warm Jets (a collage in warm colors?) and Another Green World (where he seems to be "cooling off")...
Of the latter track, Eno says, “I can remember very clearly the image that I had which was this image of a dark, inky blue forest with moss hanging off and you could hear horses off in the distance all the time, these horses kind of neighing, whinnying.” The place and the sound are inextricably combined in his imagination; his music was slowly evolving into distinct layers of sound, foreground and background, action and landscape, sound and “soundscape.”
This became even more pronounced in 1975, when Eno was struck by a car while crossing the street. Sheppard documents the artist's reflections on that turn of events: “For about a week I’d been feeling that I was about to have an accident. It was the same feeling as I had before I got appendicitis when I was sixteen – or before my lung collapsed… I always seem to sense when I’ve pushed too hard, you know? When I’ve been carried off on the momentum of media approval or professional opportunism and have ceased to think about where I am or what I’m doing.”
After the accident, one of Eno’s caretakers left him at rest in a fortuitous environment, where he fell asleep listening to a low-volume recording of 18th century harp music, mixed with the sounds of a light rain storm outside. That experience gave birth to “ambient” music – beginning with the album Discreet Music (1975) and continuing with the hugely influential Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978). Eno believed (or, rather, knew from personal experience) that ambient music could have genuinely restorative properties –- relieving stress, aiding meditation, defragging the brain. (Nowhere, he figured, is that more necessary than in crowded airports.) With each new album, he asked listeners to close their eyes and enter the “recovery room”:
Subsequent ambient works were more grounded in specific landscapes. Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirrors (1980) was a collaboration with pianist Harold Budd, whose earliest musical inspiration was "the sound of the desert wind humming in the telegraph wires near his childhood home" in the Mojave Desert. Ambient 4: On Land (1982) draws on Eno’s own childhood in rural Suffolk, England. He remembers how one song on the album (“The Lost Day’) reconnected him with a long-forgotten memory: “In the distance there’s this little bell sound. It’s not really a bell; it’s actually the sound from a Fender Rhodes piano played very, very quietly… Every time I heard it, it had a pull on me that I couldn’t explain… I went home at Christmas to visit my parents. I went for a walk on Christmas day, a windy day. They live on a river. And as I was walking I heard this sound – it was actually the sound of the metal guy wires banging against the masts of the yachts. They have metal masts on yachts, and the sound was so identical. I suddenly realized where I got this sound from.” (This author refers to this as “psycho-geography.”) Apollo: Atmospheres and Landscapes (1983), arguably the best of Eno’s ambient works, floats through the ether of outer space.
All of these albums have the effect of slowing the listener down and making us aware of our sensations in the present moment. That, as Sheppard's biography illustrates, is the secret of Eno’s success. He paints with music, creating restorative emotional landscapes and helping us to get lost in worlds we know by heart.
And you know it’s time to go
Through the sleet and driving snow
Across the fields of morning
Light in the distance
And you hunger for the time
Time to heal, desired time
And the earth moves beneath
Your own dream landscape