Apr 062012

Still Hasn't Found What He's Looking For

I’ve been listening to Before and After Science this week and got to wondering: Has Brian Eno ever given a clear answer on why he stopped making “pop” albums? If he did, do you buy his answer?

If he didn’t want to repeat himself, why did Eno follow his 4 song-based albums with all those ambient albums and even more albums that not even diehard fans can bear listening to more than a couple of times? After a certain point, don’t those albums sound like he’s on cruise control?

Think about his main production jobs after Talking Heads. as he gravitated toward the lyrical, spiritual bands U2 and Coldplay. There’s no reason to think he was only in it for the money. As the songs on Before and After Science mellow out I get the sense Eno is making his first and only efforts at writing lyrics that possibly mean something more personal than the outcomes of his random draws from a deck of Oblique Strategies cards or whatever it is one does with the I Ching. Is it possible Eno stopped making song-oriented “pop” records because he realized he didn’t have it in himself to express some deep inner yearning and universal messages, the way Bono and Chris Martin so readily do? (Not to mention his old partner in crime, Bryan Ferry.) Is his production work with those artists an indication of what Eno wished he could have done himself but felt himself lacking?

In a way similar to how sammymaudlin once speculated that David Bowie‘s “balls envy” was at the root of his producing Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, I wonder if the second half of Eno’s career was motivated by a sense that he lacked soul, or whatever you want to call it. Just a thought.


  25 Responses to “Stop Making Sense: Why Did Eno Stop Making “Pop” Albums?”

  1. tonyola

    I think the answer is simpler and less psychological than what you suggest. Eno had an experimentation streak right from the start. Even Here Comes the Warm Jets had some atmospheric instrumentals, and a large part of Another Green World was devoted to charming little sonic paintings. He also collaborated with Robert Fripp on a couple of albums, and he made the ambient Discreet Music in 1975.

    Perhaps Eno found that he could finance his experimental streak by producing far-better-known (and selling) artists such as Bowie, Talking Heads, Devo, and Ultravox. He was also quite in demand as a collaborative and contributing artist for a wide variety of acts. In short, he got busy and didn’t need to tie himself down by creating low-selling pop albums that he was disinclined to support by touring and promotion. He made money and had the time to experiment to his heart’s content. I think suggesting that he somehow lacked soul or balls or felt inadequate about pop is reading a bit too much into it, hmm?

    I do agree that his ambient albums weren’t quite as interesting as his pop records. Before and After Science is absolutely wonderful – one of my all-time favorites. I even love the mellow stuff like “Julie With…” and “Spider and I”. Eno did return to pop and vocal material in the 1990s.

  2. tonyola

    Something else I discovered – Eno was seriously injured in a car accident in 1975 and was bedridden for several months. An event like that can change one’s outlook in life.

  3. It’s those mellow songs in particular I’m referring to, tonyola. They strike me as something new for Eno, something more “naked.” In the 30 or so years since that album I feel he’s retreated from going any further and let his production work serve as his outlet for that form of expression.

  4. Eno recorded a fairly straightforward (for him) pop album in 1991 called My Squelchy Life. However, the record company wanted to delay releasing the album for several months and Eno lost interest. I have a copy and it’s the closest thing to his ’70s pop stuff that I’ve heard. Some songs have been released elsewhere but the album as a whole remains unreleased. In a way, it’s Eno’s Smile. I still think you’re jumping to out-there conclusions about someone who seems to be basically cerebral and private. Not everyone wants to be a raw-nerve, naked-to-the-world rock star.

  5. shawnkilroy

    I love this album SOOO much! Julie with… is the high point, no doubt, and my favorite Eno track of all time.
    Perhaps after this he had nothing more to say.

  6. ladymisskirroyale

    This from Mr. Royale: during recuperation from said accident, Eno spent a lot of time bed ridden and drifting in/out of an ability to pay attention to music. He began to become interested in music (paraphrasing here) that is as listenable as it is ignorable. He took cues from Debussy and Satie and tried to make music that “hovered in the air like perfume.”

  7. misterioso

    Good question and interesting theories. As a very latecomer to these records (I have no idea why, since I have been a big fan of Eno-related music since before I had any idea who Eno was), I tend to buy tonyola’s explanation.

  8. I know all that. I’m a big fan of Discreet Music, the concept of which resulted from that time in a hospital bed. However, with a rare exception or two it’s been 30 years since Eno’s made anything like the possibly more personal stuff he was getting into on Before and After Science. All the while he’s produced bands that have picked up from that work. I know it’s a silly idea, but I propose he got too close to the flame on Before and After Science and has run from it in his own work ever since, using U2 and Coldplay to satisfy that side of his artistic interests.

  9. I would LOVE to hear that album! I do like the album he did with Cale, and an album involving his voice but not really singing or lyrics from about 5 years ago is kind of cool, too.

    I’m not saying he should want to be a rock star or confessional singer. I’m suggesting there’s a part of him that does want to communicate on a broader level, but he’s more comfortable doing so from his role as producer.

  10. There’s nothing wrong with tonyola’s explanation, but I’m sensing a turning point in this discussion.

  11. BigSteve

    Did you guys miss Eno’s more recent song-oriented albums? Another Day on Earth in 2005 was very nice. His collaboration with David Byrne Everything That Happens Will Happen Today came out in 2008. 2010’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea doesn’t have vocals, but it’s got short instrumental ‘songs,’ sort of like if you made an album like Another Green World composed only of the instrumental tracks. And the John Cale collaboration way back in 1990 was all songs, recorded in the middle of the period when most of his other work was split between solo experimentation and producing other artists.

  12. I forgot about Another Day on Earth. I did not like that album one bit. I mentioned the Cale collaboration, which I thought was very good, and another solo one from a few years ago, with voices used as instruments. That one, I thought, was very good and successful in an “experimental” way.

  13. misterioso

    That was kind of awesome.

  14. BigSteve

    Well, you’ve answered your own question right there. Why Did Eno Stop Making “Pop” Albums? Because when he does, his fans do not like them one bit.

  15. Sure, that was great – probably the best thing he’s done in 25 years.

  16. I gave both Another Day and Everything Happens a chance, but nothing really grabbed me.

    As far as early Eno albums, I’ve always enjoyed Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).
    I’m not sure if songs like “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More” and “China, My China” are designed to be whimiscal, but they sure make me laugh. “Baby’s On Fire” off Here Come the Warm Jets is a favorite from the early days too. For albums that barely charted, I’ve listened to them alot over the years.

  17. The Eno pop albums of the mid 70’s are definite keepers. I listen to Taking Tiger Mountain , Science , Green World and the Fripp/Eno No Pussyfooting semi-regularly. The ambient stuff is a cool idea but not something to play that often.

    As for the question about whether his production jobs get Eno closer to human emotions, you may be looking at this backwards. U2 sought Eno out because the Edge wanted to change their sound from pub-rock to something more like the last 2 songs from Remain in Light . And Coldplay probably just want to reproduce U2’s results. Now, I guess Eno can pick and choose his assignments but it seems clear that he takes the money and puts it toward the music he wants to make, mostly the ambient stuff.

  18. tonyola

    Eno also turned the sound of Bowie and the Talking Heads in a technical/atmospheric direction when he began producing them.

  19. To k.’s point, which is extremely reasonable, mature, and in line with some of what Eno’s said over the years, it’s hard to argue with that thinking. But if we can’t challenge that line here, it’s not going to be challenged anywhere.

    If you guys are cool with thinking his production work is just about the money, that’s on you. I’ve got too much respect for the man. I’m trying to get at what’s really behind his production choices following Bowie and Talking Heads. And I’m trying to get at why he’s been making albums that are nearly unlistenable for the last 30 years. You’re telling me he produces these big, bold allbums for other artists so he can essentially release the musical equivalent of ivy growing in his yard every few years? I’m not buying it, and as interesting as his foreground vs background theories behind his ambient music read, he’s abandoned that approach on albums I’ve heard dating back to that Nerve Net thing and barely brought those theories into his production work. What’s more foreground than Bono?

    I’m trying to get at why he suddenly ran away from the direction in which he was headed. I’ve read all those 8-paragraph explanations of his time in the hospital bed and the theories behind ambient music. I still listen to his first 4 albums, the Fripp and Eno albums, and Discreet Music on a regular basis. I even listen to Ambient 4 his albums with Cluster a couple of times a year.

    Over the last 20 years he’s produced some albums that really lay it all on table, making big, bold statements and memorable tunes (whether I always like them or not). He’s long been a vehicle for instant credibility. I know what the artists get out of him, but at a certain level what the does he get out of his own involvement in music? Being “experimental” is one thing; dicking around half the time is quite another.

    Many of us around here agree that Rod Stewart is rock’s most wasted talent? What I’m getting at is whether Eno is a distant second.

  20. tonyola

    I think it depends on how you define “dicking around” and I suspect your definition of the term is far different than Eno’s. One could accuse Robert Fripp of “dicking around” by neglecting King Crimson and doing all his soundscapes, ProjeKcts, and League of Crafty Guitarists stuff.

  21. Bronzed Nordic God

    I’m probably entering this thread a little past its expiration date, but I find Mod’s framing of this issue unfair. Mod treats all his ambient records as being records his diehard fans would only pull out a couple of times. Do you realize that Eno is considered to be the father of ambient music? Although he didn’t invent it, he gave it its name and perfected it better than anyone. And for about 20 years, he was really the only one making these kinds of records. If you ask someone on the street to name a single Brian Eno record, I wouldn’t be surprised if Music for Airports rivals either Before and After Science or Warm Jets as the album that comes up.

    I come at Eno from the opposite direction to Mod. For 20 years, all I listened to from Eno was the ambient stuff. Thousands of hours of homework was completed to these subtle warblings. Records like Ambient 4 and the Apollo soundtrack are brilliant pieces of background music. Not everyone’s cup of tea I suppose, but a whole industry of ambient music has sprung up from Eno’s ambient creations (the best artists following his lead that I’ve heard are Stars of the Lid and Tim Hecker). I knew he made some pop records (and I owned Another Green World), but I really didn’t care that much. Hundreds of artists were making quirky pop (including a number of people Eno was producing), but only Eno was making ambient music.

    If you were Eno and had a choice to be one of many pop artists (and a pop artist with weak voice to boot) or to continue to explore a genre you invented and essentially owned, would you be surprised at the choice he made?

  22. It’s never too late to enter a thread – and that message applies to those of you who have been nodding silently in agreement with what I’ve been getting at. I say this with nothing but good spirits: your tale, Bronzed One, is fascinating. I never considered there was an Eno equivalent of the kids who first got into McCartney through Wings. Your points are more than reasonable.

  23. I think Eno has himself indicated his that isn’t especially keen on writing lyrics, generally a requirement to operate in the pop arena. On “Everything That Happens…”, the story was that Eno created the musical tracks and Byrne put the lyrics on top and took it out to the people. While it’s hard to imagine that Byrne really laid just words and melodies on fully formed tracks, it certainly sounds like the words are fully his own. I think that Eno is a little too self conscious to put himself out there with heartfelt lyrics, and I think he tired of his clever distancing strategies that he used to create his earlier lyrics. Then again, I don’t hear the lyrics on the softer side of Before and After Science as anything truly more heartfelt than the Kurt Schwitters/Tiger Mountain/Anagarammatic word games of the first side.

    So although I don’t think he backed away from pop because he felt he was revealing too much of himself, I DO think he likes to work on pop music as long as someone else is creating the raw material.

  24. sammymaudlin

    As usual, sammy is right.

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