Brian Eno: The Drop
Brian Eno: Nerve Net
All Saints Records
It's the rare artist who's able to sustain creative brilliance over the span of multiple decades; Miles Davis and Igor Stravinsky come to mind as exceptional artists who managed to do so. Most, on the other hand, enjoy a brief period of fecundity where everything they create is marked by towering levels of innovation and imagination. In this latter category, one might include Brian Eno. Consider for a moment the game-changing solo albums he issued during his peak years, each brilliant in its own way: Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, Before and After Science, and Music for Airports. Let's also not forget Eno's visionary collaborations with others, such as My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with David Byrne and No Pussyfooting with Robert Fripp, as well as the key production-related contributions he brought to releases such as Talking Heads' More Songs About Buildings and Food and Remain in Light. Yet a significant drop-off in quality followed that remarkable period, as evidenced by a number of 1990s solo albums now being re-issued by All Saints in expanded form. Each of the four—Nerve Net, The Shutov Assembly, Neroli, and The Drop—supplements the album's original content with a disc of rare and previously unreleased material; a booklet featuring photos, images, and writing by Eno also accompanies each release.
1992's Nerve Net has the most interesting backstory, given that it was famously scheduled to be released in 1991 under the title My Squelchy Life (even reviewed as such by The Wire) before being pulled at the last minute and released in altered form under the Nerve Net title a short while later. Of the three albums reviewed here, it's the one that most benefits from the inclusion of the additional material, and also suggests that a much stronger release could have been assembled from the material available than the Nerve Net that was issued in 1992. Representative of Eno's ambient-styled work, The Shutov Assembly (also released in 1992) came into being when Eno gathered unreleased material onto a tape to give to a Russian friend Sergei Shutov, who used to paint to Eno's music but had difficulty getting his hands on it. The Drop, pitched as “jazz from a vague, alien perspective,” appeared five years later and does, in fact, signify a noticeable drop-off from the earlier ‘90s material.
Though it's nowhere close to Before and After Science in quality, Nerve Net does have a few moments to recommend it. It's a musically dense affair that includes contributions by a large number of guests, among them Robert Fripp, Roger Eno, Robert Quine, and John Paul Jones (on piano, not bass) and that might best be described as “Juju Space Jazz,” in keeping with one of the track titles; interestingly, a number of Nerve Net's instrumental tracks call to mind the space jazz style of Weather Report's Mr. Gone (e.g., “Pierre In Mist”), while others are closer in spirit to a synth-heavy Afro-funk style. Occasionally a particular track sounds like it could be a credible fit for one of Eno's earlier albums, and characteristically unusual sound treatments do appear often. With its (presumably) found vocals, “What Actually Happened?,” for instance, wouldn't sound out of place on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and there are also moments when a track foreshadows Eno's later work (“Pierre In Mist,” “Decentre,” and “Little Apricot” all anticipate the ambient-jazz style of The Drop, for example). The otherwise lacklustre “Distributed Being” receives a major boost when Fripp strafes its second half with a blistering solo, and Eno's in good vocal form (see “The Roil, The Choke”), but much of the songwriting often lacks distinction and much of it's melodically undistinguished, too. Some tracks are little more than atmospheric run-on grooves that tread water, and it's depressing to see Eno using a drum groove in “Ali Click” of the sort one would hear in a song by EMF or Milli Vanilli, especially when compared to something as percussively arresting as “No One Receiving.” Without question, some of the bonus tracks are stronger than some of those on the originally released disc (certain disc two songs will be familiar to those with 1993's II: Vocals box set in their collections). The funk rave-up “I Fall Up” lays much of the Nerve Net material to waste and also features the release's most memorable lyric (“I'm sucking the juice from the generator! More volts!”), while “The Harness” includes a vocal performance that sounds as if it could have been lifted straight off Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). The joyous, high-spirited “Stiff” stands out, but not everything works (see “Tutti Forgetti,” which features a rap-styled delivery that's almost embarrassing). Certainly no one can complain about the amount of music on offer: at twenty-three tracks and two hours, Nerve Net is more than generous in that regard.
As mentioned, The Shutov Assembly came out in 1992, but Eno actually recorded it between 1985 and 1990. And while it is Eno in classic ambient mode (as one would expect, given that the material stems from audio-visual installations presented in the Canary Islands, Amsterdam, Milan, Venice, Germany, Spain, Italy, Tokyo, and so on), it's not uneventful. Field recordings of birds appear alongside the glistening drift of keyboards in the opener “Triennale,” and the album's rather dark tone catches one's ear, too. A uniform air of foreboding permeates the ten original tracks, there's less fluctuation in quality than on Nerve Net, and the atmospheric, bestilled settings, appropriately enough, come across like hazily allusive paintings in musical form. Though any number of glimmering pieces could be selected as representative of the project, “Lanzarote,” which softly exhales for a time-suspending nine minutes, would seem to be as good a choice as any. Interestingly, the activity level escalates in the bonus material: “Eastern Cities” and “Empty Platform” play like brooding orchestral works arranged for synthetic keyboards, while “Big Slow Arabs” anticipates The Drop in its quirky, beat-based design; “Storm” even threads Fripp-styled guitar strokes into its rhythm-heavy percolations. As far as previously heard material is concerned, “Ikebukuro,” the sixteen-minute piece that appears halfway through, showed up in an edited form on the 1993 1: Instrumental box set.
If Nerve Net is “Juju Space Jazz,” The Drop is “Fractal Lounge Jazz,” though unfortunately not of the most captivating kind. If Eno set out to create some form of faceless modern-day muzak, he certainly succeeded. The original album material begins with the near-comatose “Slip, Dip” and impressionistic reverie “But If” before moving on to slightly more animated tracks. Vague traces of Eno's signature style and sensibility surface—see the wonky “Belgian Drop,” Zawinul-esque “Swanky,” and funky “M.C. Organ” as examples—but the material's anonymity tends to cancel that out much of the time. Eno structured the album in an unusual way in following fifteen miniatures with the hypnotic mood piece “Iced World,” an extreme example of generative music that cycles repeatedly through the same basic material; modestly engaging at first, the piece wears out its welcome long before its nineteen minutes are up. Repeating the trend established by the others in the series, the bonus tracks, a collection of outtakes and alternate versions, are more energized than the originals. The Afro-funk swing of “Never Stomp” and “Luxor Night Car” sound more like Nerve Net material than The Drop, while “Targa Summer” harks back to the humid exoticism of Another Green World. Disc two mirrors the first in capping it with a long instrumental, in this case “Targa,” which, in its favour, eschews the numbing repetition of “Iced World” for something more free-flowing and explorative.
Though the re-issues have some redeeming qualities and in places exemplify his singular sensibility, they're minor Eno at best—though some might argue that even minor Eno is still good enough and perhaps even better than others' best work. And while it would be unreasonable to expect an artist to stop releasing work, even if he/she were to sense a diminishment in the quality of the output involved, perhaps there's something to be said for ending the release of new material once the artist in question recognizes that it's inferior to what's come before. Imagine how differently we'd see Eno's career had his final recorded statement been, say, Before and After Science or My Life in the Bush of Ghosts rather than something comparatively underwhelming such as Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his 2008 reunion with David Byrne, or his 2010 solo release Small Craft on a Milk Sea. Eno's hardly alone on that count; one could apply the same argument to Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Prince, U2, The Clash, and Roxy Music, especially when it's possible to, in every case, pinpoint the album where the drop-off occurs; even Miles might have been better to conclude his recording career with the mid-‘70s live trilogy, rather than sully it with the weaker material he issued after his five-year break. Few artists, its seems, know when to leave the stage.