Somewhere in West London, there is said to be a dealer in second-hand hi-fi equipment whose face lights up every time Brian Eno walks in. Eno’s interest in speakers of all types and sizes was on show this morning in his Notting Hill studio, where a small audience gathered to listen to a 15-channel 3D mix of his new album, The Ship. After the playback, I took the photograph above in order to give a partial sense of the configuration.
Originally commissioned by a gallery in Stockholm, The Ship has also been seen in Barcelona and Geneva in a larger audio-visual form which enables Eno to describe the installation as “songs you can walk around in”. When plans to install it at Somerset House fell apart, Eno decided to present this stripped-down version privately on his own premises, but there are still hopes of a full public treatment in London in the near future. I hope that happens, because to sit in the middle of it — with the sounds coming from all angles and heights, distributed by Eno and his collaborator, Peter Chilvers, according to the individual speakers’ inherent characteristics — was a very worthwhile experience.
This, Eno says, is his First World War album, treating the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 as a prelude to the slaughter that began on the Western Front two years later. To paraphrase him, its subjects are the relationship between hubris and paranoia, and the way the oceans and the land persist while “we pass in a cloud of chatter”. I had no idea of the theme before I sat down to listen, but I couldn’t miss the sense of a threnody running through the two pieces making up the album: “The Ship” itself, 21 minutes long, and a 26-minute suite in three parts called “Fickle Sun”, in which voices and lyrics are allowed to drift in a sea of sounds largely familiar from Eno’s adventures in ambient music.
At first, listening to the slow electronic washes and bleeps and the dislocated recitative of “The Ship”, and noting a tolling bell, I wondered if this was his elegant way of saying goodbye to his friend David Bowie. Wrong there, apparently. But a lovely piece nonetheless, its overlapping layers of synthetic sounds and occasional choirs of distant shadow-voices gradually building a mood of subdued disquiet.
“Fickle Sun” begins with tintinnabulation and flutter, soon thickened by a muffled bass-drum and a wandering rubberised bass line. Eno’s sombre, careful delivery of his stately melody reminds me of Nico singing “Frozen Warnings” or “The End” — at least until organ and staccato synth-brass chords intrude with a faint echo of Holst’s “Mars”, raising the tension before the textures thin out again to support a conversation between the double-tracked natural voice and its synthesised sibling. The short second movement features the actor Peter Serafinowicz reading Eno’s poem “The Hour is Thin” against simple acoustic piano figures: “The hour is thin / Trafalgar Square is calm / Birds and cold black dark / The final famine of a wicked sun…” The suite concludes with a gently paced cover of Lou Reed’s “I’m Set Free”, that famous declaration from the Velvets’ third album, with Eno’s lead vocal, sometimes double-tracked or harmonised, floating on the bell-like keyboards of Jon Hopkins, the guitar of Leo Abrahams and the violin and viola of Neil Catchpole.
Placed at the end of the album instead of being located in the middle of side two, as it was in its original incarnation on The Velvet Underground, this deceptively reassuring song seems even more unsettling. Which, at the end of a cycle of pieces dedicated to investigating the eternal interplay of hubris and paranoia, was presumably the intention.
* The Ship is released on April 29 on the Opal label in various CD and vinyl formats. The full audio-visual installation is travelling to Belgrade, Istanbul, Copenhagen, Mantua and Lodz.