"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut JUNE 2004 - by Stephen Troussé
EGGHEAD OVER HEELS
Sonic visionary's first four vocal solo albums; no extras, just untramelled invention
Imagine a phantom alternative cut of Velvet Goldmine where those stack-heeled gawky glam fans rampage through the streets of London only - through a succession of exquisitely wrong turns - to find their soaring pretensions have lifted them right out of their recessive spacetime into some hi-fi, sci-fi, cybernetic plaza of tranquillity from Logan's Run. That's the kind of speculative leap you might make in mapping these four '70s transmissions from the brain of Eno. Examiners of 2040 will ask the question: How did Eno get from Bryan to Byrne to Bono, from the feathered, jangled psycho-stomp of Needles In The Camel's Eye to the becalmed anxiety of Spider And I in the four short years between 1973 and 1977? And this quartet add up to some sort of answer. They're a fab four. In which case Warm Jets is Paul (bitterly sentimental, discreetly avant-garde), Tiger Mountain is John (sentimentally bitter, avantly discrete), Green World is George (beguilingly enigmatic with a lunatic fringe) and After Science is Ringo (muscular but lumpy). Or they're a fantastic four (in which case they are, respectively, The Human Touch, Mr Fantastic, The Invisible Girl and The Thing).
Received wisdom would have it that these lyrical excursions are the surfacing for air during the long breaststroke into the pool of ambience, figurative gasps that intersperse the more absract deep-sea research. But, for some of us, these records mark the full flowering of Eno - the man who once aspired to become a tape recorder - as supreme pop collagist.
Here Come The Warm Jets (1974), the first fractured flush of Eno's freedom from a Roxy he feared fatally compromised, offers a template of the kind of collage we have in mind. Cindy Tells Me suggests members of the Bloomsbury Group forming a VU tribute band and trying their hand at Venusian doo-wop. Or Blank Frank: Bo Diddley inventing The Pixies thirty years too soon.
This sensibility is perfected on Taking Tiger Mountain (also 1974) - not through anything as dull as coherence, but through an anxious rightness: what David Lynch once described as the eye of the duck, an exact oddness, right on the nailhead. It's perversely tempting to celebrate it as a great lyrical achievement: Eno has done more than anyone to bring us round to the pleasures of texture over text, perfume over persona (and I could write another thousand words on Mackay's sinister sax arrangements, Manzanera's splintered fretting). But on songs like Back In Judy's Jungle (Lewis Carroll and Philip K. Dick have a stab at rewriting It's A Long Way To Tipperary) or The Fat Lady Of Limbourg (Bill Burroughs drafts a ballad for Björk), Eno struck a seam of nonsense which didn't so much provide a key or a lyrical focus to the songs but a fictive frame, a ludic element of baffle. The True Wheel is a landmark of sublime, concise pop strangeness unequalled until Once In A Lifetime. It's precisely the absence of this play that depletes the second half of the quartet. The back cover of Another Green World (1975) depicts Eno bare-chested and earnest, the comic, cosmic playboy turned discreet philosopher of form. The sound worlds here, all fretless bass and chiming calm, forever BBC2 docu-soundtrack, are enchanting but unprovoking. From here on, however striking (and don't mistake me, these ripples on the surface of silence are strictly beautiful), the tracks are framed by theory rather than antic wit.
The problematic Before And After Science provides both an index of Eno's achievements to date - the pop collage refined through Schwitters into the hectic Kurt's Rejoinder - and a contents list of what was to come: most notoriously on the Devo-lved, anagrammatic King's Lead Hat, which was to lead him right out of Bowie's berlin straight into the embrace of Byrne's Manhattan.