Monday, January 16, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #100 - Brian Eno - Before and After Science (1977)

It's been a long time since I've made use of this excellent blog I started all those years ago, but recently I decided to undertake a project worthy of its resurrection. In my continuing quest for new and interesting music, I always fear that I am missing out on the classics, and so I have decided to listen to all of Pitchfork Magazine's Top 100 Albums of the 1970s (Pitchfork being more in line with my sensibilities than other similar compilers of lists and the 1970s being objectively the best decade of music) in order, at he rate of approximately one a week.

Many of these albums I already know and love. Others will be brand new to me. I intend to approach all of them with fresh ears (as fresh as I can manage anyway) and post the resulting experiences here. Are you ready? Okay, here we go.

I should start right off by confessing that I am a confirmed Brian Eno addict. Dozens of albums in my collection bear his fingerprints in one way or another, and most of the rest are only a stone's throw away from his influence. The Kevin Bacon of the music world, playing Six Degrees of Brian Eno would be fun if it weren't so easy.

Before and After Science is subtitled "Ten Pictures," which is understated, elegant, and totally accurate. It has always been my favorite of his classic vocal period since the first time I heard it. Not as energetic as Here Come the Warm Jets, not as revolutionary as Another Green World, but in my view the most perfectly constructed artistic statement of Eno's career.

As always, Eno has surrounded himself with supremely talented musicians, but never in obvious ways. Fred Frith and Robert Fripp guest on guitar, Phil Collins and Jaki Liebezeit play drums on a couple of tracks, and the members of Cluster show up for one, but they never hog the spotlight or steal the show. They lurk in the background, making magic with quiet competence. Eno doesn't use "soloists". These guys are just another sound in the mix.

The lyrics are classic absurdist Eno chosen more for their sound than their sense, although they start seeming increasingly meaningful the more you listen to them. "If you study the logistics and heuristics of the mystics, you will find that their minds rarely move in a line" makes so much sense, while at the same time being almost impossibly euphonic that it makes me feel like my mind is going.

The album progresses steadily from a sort of nervous energy embodied in tracks like "No One Receiving" and "King's Lead Hat" towards increasingly tranquil waters. By side two, the listener is transported far away to the calm and sleepy lands of bucolic ambience. "By This River", "Julie With...", and "Through Hollow Lands" are gorgeous and serene, yet with a sense of melancholy never too deep under the surface.

Elsewhere, Eno brings his twisted pop sensibilities to the forefront. "Backwater" is infectiously catchy in its simplicity, and Eno's squelchy horn-like synths sound as fresh today as the did forty years ago. "Here He Comes" transforms a simple pop melody into a work of soaring beauty with layer upon layer of chiming guitars, cooing background vocals, and of course the trademark synthesizers.

In fact, one of the things that continues to amaze and impress me about Eno is how he is able to get such unique sounds out of equipment that has been used by countless others in more or less predictable fashion. Nothing on this record sounds like a preset (which sadly cannot be said for some of Eno's more recent work), and indeed, very little here sounds like anything I've heard on any other record.

Perhaps the best example of this is the album's closer "Spider and I", which is close to being my favorite song of all time. It's the simplest track on the record, consisting solo of Eno on vocals and synthesizers with a languid bass guitar contribution by Brian Turrington, but out of that simplicity comes a texture that manages simultaneously to be heartbreaking and triumphant. After a couple of minutes, the distant Arcadian chords are joined by a short lyric, sung by Eno without pretense or apparent effort. "Spider and I sit watching the sky in a world without sound. We knit a web to catch one tiny fly, in our world without sound. We sleep in the morning. We dream of a ship that sails away, a thousand miles away." The second half of this is reprised once, and then the album ends. A world without sound.

Needless to say, if this were my list, Before and After Science would place far higher than #100.

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