When it was announced in 2010 that Brian Eno had signed to Warp Records, more than a few eyebrows arched. While Eno is synonymous with adventurous, intellectually curious (and rigorous) music—whether rock, electronic or otherwise—his work of the past 20 years had trended towards the mild rather than the provocative. At that time, Warp had already embraced things other than electronic music, be it Grizzly Bear or Maxïmo Park, and their defining act Aphex Twin was still in the wilderness. So the pairing seemed to promise a symbiotic relationship: an elder statesman might be invigorated by a new generation.
Eno’s Small Craft On A Milk Sea, featuring Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins, bristled with energy, the trio veering into noise, post-rock and ambient with zest. And while the end results varied wildly, each subsequent Warp release found Eno pushing bravely into new collaborations, be it with poet Rick Holland or Underworld’s Karl Hyde. Lux proved he was still a master craftsman of subtly shifting atmosphere, while Highlife, his second album with Hyde, recalled the halcyon Afrobeat grooves of Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, which Eno produced. The Ship, his sixth Warp record in seven years, entwines various threads from these albums into a heady amalgam that stands as his best work for the label to date. Comprised of two side-long pieces, it touches on Eno’s obsessions: ambient, generative music, spontaneous texts, noise and even his beloved Velvet Underground. It’s billed as Eno’s first ambient album with vocals. But in its mix of words and ambient passages, The Ship might be better summarized as a return voyage to Another Green World.
Whereas much of Eno’s ambient work has been about pond-like stasis and almost imperceptible change, the album’s 21-minute title track suggests melting ice and flowing tributaries. Nearly six minutes in, Eno’s baritone at last appears. The lyrics that bob to the surface are said to have been culled from 20th century news stories (including the Titanic and the Great War), as well as modern and utterly insignificant texts (like an email disclaimer), all of it fed through a Markov chain generator. Eno’s monotone transmits such lines every ten seconds or so, like a blip on radar growing ever more faint.
The three-part suite “Fickle Sun” begins in a desolate space. It gains momentum and gravity, flares of guitar leading into a startling climax of brass wallops and white noise. That crescendo is one of the most dramatic moments in Eno’s decades-long catalog, though the piece continues for another nine minutes with little more occurring. “Fickle Sun (ii) The Hour Is Thin,” a spoken-word interlude, breaks up the album’s otherwise sustained mood.
For all its cold, dark space, The Ship closes with a warm cover of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free.” Eno’s love for the band is profound, and their third album is known to be his favorite, so much so that he’s said, “I just didn’t buy this album because I never wanted it to become casual for me. I would only hear it at other people’s places because I always wanted it to be special.” Originally recorded a dozen years ago but never finished, “Fickle Sun (iii) I’m Set Free” is reverent and straightforward. Perhaps at any other moment in those past 12 years it would have felt maudlin tacked onto an album, but, coming as it does after the passing of both Lou Reed and Eno’s close cohort David Bowie, this version now has a mortal cast. When Eno gets to the chorus, singing, “I’m set free to find a new illusion,” it feels both bittersweet and redemptive.