Brian Eno: Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Warp)

Reviewed by Jason Weaver

Brian Eno has nothing to prove. For all the complaints against his work with Coldplay, it’s likely that he sees it as viable territory for connecting disparate points on the cultural grid. Much of his work has been about inhabiting different environments and exploring the conditions of what might seem like the least promising places. His notion of working against the grain is doubly subversive for being in less fashionable trends. He’s fond of reminding us how critics first received his ambient records. Whether these experiments are artistically (rather than commercially) successful is moot but I’m sure there are also people who think U2 hit the skids once Eno started mucking about. There are dozens of ways Eno could cash in, he clearly likes making music with these bands.

So: new formats, new territories, Eno comes to Warp. It has been suggested that there was something inevitable about this. I disagree. The spirit of On Land may be faintly evident in Boards of Canada, music as evocative of memory. But Warp’s notion of ambient is utterly different: digital compared to Eno’s tactile analogue. BoC’s wonky synths are a comment on the shift in music technology: before and after digital, we might say. His own digital funk is rather prosaic next to Autechre. I hear no echoes at all in Aphex music. Eno is not afraid to be gauche and fits better on the more Romantic 4ad. Indeed, opening track Emerald and Lime has a Cocteau Twins / Harold Budd feel.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Small Craft is that, after years of self-releasing installation material and curiosities, Eno has a platform for his solo work again. He has interesting things to say about how different formats bring different listening expectations, that vinyl requires action every 20 minutes whilst the shift to digital has transformed consumption into ‘turning on a tap’. Continuing the packaging experiments of his last collaboration with David Byrne, Eno seems to be treating this as an exercise in format and marketing, asking formal questions about the things that surround the music these days in order to differentiate and actually sell it. Unfortunately, I don’t see anything that hasn’t already been attempted by a number of bands, including Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Trent Reznor’s shifting business models, or the aforementioned Byrne and Eno album.

Again, some have expressed surprise at the actual music on Small Craft, the nervy and frenetic Horse in particular. But to my ears, it wouldn’t sound out of place on his 90s album Nerve Net. Tracks like Paleosonic have the same metallic percussion that Eno has previewed in the studio over the years. There’s even some of his ugly, unpopular jazz on Bone Jump. There are also moments of real beauty. The material adapted from his music for David Eagleman’s Sum, for example, has a stillness and grace reminiscent of the 80s Music for Films series. Mainly, though, the record sounds like a work in progress and I think of opportunity of working on Warp has been wasted. Imagine a collaboration with Autechre, Africa Hitech, Flying Lotus or in the spirit of Broadcast’s Witch Cults album, making something really new and label specific.

Despite Eno’s highly developed sense of function and purpose, I just don’t know what to do with Small Craft on a Milk Sea. It might be easy to argue that Eno’s innovations have caught up with him but here I once more disagree. That’s only true in a positive sense. The handful of apps he co-developed for the iPhone have seen a technology that can finally deliver on themes he has pioneered. In that sense, his best and most innovative music has come in the last couple of years, on a format that nobody else has really discovered yet.

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