Stylus OCTOBER 7, 2002 - by Matthew Weiner


When I was sixteen, my parents made the ill-considered decision to "save money" by paying me to paint their house, resulting in the disaster foreseeable to everyone but them. Somehow, amidst the countless near-falls and spills, I befriended the guy building our deck. We used to chat music. I lectured him on my god-awful taste in progressive rock at the time, and he introduced me to the likes of Brian Eno, one day lending me his vinyl copy of Before And After Science.

Before long, I would sit alone in my room, listening to the record's second side endlessly, fantasising about a still, utterly barren, moonlit landscape. It was an image probably inspired by that record's pastoral final track, Spider And I, which began, "Spider and I / Sit watching the sky / On our world without sound," softly intoned by Eno's vibrato-less, multi-tracked voice over a bed of electronics. Before And After Science became my personal soundtrack to getting away from it all.

Since that time, I have often wondered what one record I would listen to if I were completely and permanently alone. Not in a depressing sense, but in a "what if it were just me and the music" sense. It's not an easy decision, because so few records are so universal in purpose or usefulness - which is surprising when you consider that so many records are made for the basest, most blatantly commercial reasons. And with even the most artist-driven projects often crafted for no one but the artists themselves, one isn't left with as many choices as you'd imagine.

So, what to choose? In the debut of the Stranded column a month ago, Matt LeMay wrote that the ideal Desert Island disc was something you listen to while facing death. Fair enough, if a little grim. And I'm not sure I want somebody - least of all Will Oldham - croaking in my ear about failings and death to be the last thing I ever hear (though LeMay does go on to say that he would get to come home from his desert island with a greater understanding of life - I'm assuming no such optimistic scenario). By contrast, I prefer to think of the Desert Island disc as something to make the most of the situation and have the potential to break up the monotony - preferably something that didn't remind me of coconuts and sand - thus eliminating Harry Nilsson's song and Don Ho's Tiny Bubbles from the competition.

Thus began a search through nearly every record in my collection (Pet Sounds? Too whiny. Any reasonable person would want to choke Brian Wilson after about a month; plus, the "Why won't you let me go home?" refrain of Sloop John B wouldn't exactly get my mind off the fact that I'm stuck by myself on a rock). And somehow, the one that kept coming back to me was Before And After Science. In the decade-plus since I had first heard it, the album as a whole became clearer to me, while at the same time retaining the mysteries one hopes would endure over the long, hot months of nothingness.

And that second side remains as luminous as ever. Aside from the record's only lack-luster cut, the bland Here He Comes which opens side two, all that follows retains the open, spacious quality that I found so attractive in my teens: the endlessly cascading orchestration of Through Hollow Lands, the gorgeous suspended-in-air chorus of Julie With..., By This River's lonely synthesizer solo. All of these sound ever more stately ten years on, their melodies the most ingratiatingly familiar of Eno's career.

But I was surprised to discover that, in many respects, it was the first side of Before And After Science (the pop and presumably "Before" side) that made the record so lastingly pleasurable. Here, Eno abandons the aforementioned sparseness of the arrangements in lieu of maximalist pop songs with lyrics literally overflowing with imagery, humor and varying interpretations, often because the listener can't figure out what he's singing.

Take the quirky, prog-disco fusion of No One Receiving that leads off the record: Immediately establishing a sense of deep foreboding and alienation over trademark electronics augmenting the fascinating rhythmic two-step of Percy Jones and Phil Collins(!!), Eno sings over one of his most memorable melodies, "It will shine and it will shudder / As I guide it with my rudder / On its metalled ways." But absent a lyric sheet, Eno could well be singing, "in these metal waves," deftly mixing the metaphor of airwaves with waterwaves.

Or in King's Lead Hat (famously an anagram for Talking Heads, who Eno was producing at the time), when he sings, "The killer cycles / The killer hurts," which, by virtue of his British accent could just as well be "kilohertz," extending the electronics metaphor of No One Receiving even further.

But the device is more than mere cleverness. These aren't questions that are meant to be answered, but another way for famous studio-phile Eno to utilize the recording studio in a way that enhances the music, in this case, blurring lines to create a less finite experience (and really, what better way to spend eternity than listening to a record with a song about "sailing at the edges of time"?).

In the late '70s, Eno had been devising systems to break up the monotony of recording, the most famous of which being the "Oblique Strategies" card set he designed with artist, Peter Schmidt. The cards, loosely based on the I Ching, had cryptic messages like "Honor thy mistake as a hidden intention," that were supposed to be drawn from the deck when the creative process had ground to a halt. "Oblique Strategies" became emblematic of Eno's working method: meticulous, eggheadedly intellectual and relentlessly creative, though they were dismissed as pompous by some. And with classic results like Bowie's "Heroes", Talking Heads' Fear Of Music and his own, Before And After Science, I'm not inclined to argue.

Ultimately, Before And After Science is extraordinary for a million and one reasons, some expected and traditional (sharp melodies and production), with others less so (the alluring, obtuse lyrics). But perhaps most importantly, there's a sense that you're staring at a canvas that isn't finished, that the listener completes differently with each listen. Knowing its author, that's surely no accident, and neither is the fact that Before And After Science stands as Eno's subtle treatise on how one maximizes possibilities with a minimum of materials.

If you're stuck on a rock, you could listen to worse.