Nearer My Eno To Thee

Discreet Music & Another Green World

From Creem, April 1976, by James Wolcott

A transatlantic vinyl missive from Eno: the album is called Discreet Music, it's released on a label called Obscure, and side two features Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel (titled "Fullness of Wind," "French Catalogues," and "Brutal Ardour"), and I know that given such deliciously enticing data, readers by the thousands will immediately line up at Sam Goody's, with money in the fist and fire-of-longing in the heart. And when the store manager tells the assembled fans that yet another Eno album is available, there will be a domino burst of joy like a string of explosions...

Hopeless reverie. But probably not as hopeless as trying to fire a public enthusiasm for an artist whose masterpiece (the conceptually brilliant, richly textured Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy) had the sad fate of garnering fine reviews and poor sales, a combination landing him in that most problematic of categories: the Critic's Darling. Eno's predicament is even more vexatious than usual because his critical support is concentrated in one magazine -- the one you're holding in your hands -- and hence he doesn't benefit from the sort of influence-swaying consensus that has aided Little Feat, say, or Roxy Music. Yet the questionable perception that Eno's work essentially provides esoteric delight persists, encouraging the equally questionable notion that his music is too distant, cerebral, intricate and eccentric to appeal to more than an enlightened few. That may be true but we shouldn't assume it's true.

Another Green World doesn't have the driving, dynamic complexities of Taking Tiger Mountain and Here Come the Warm Jets, and doesn't provide the opportunity to discover witty lyrics darting like fish, beneath the murk of Manzanera guitars and gurgling synthesizers, but as a collection of compelling fragments -- of musical pieces that never form a whole -- it has an icy, evocative power. The key word is "icy," because those who find Eno's music cold and emotionless won't find anything on Another Green World to spin their opinion around. It's simply a matter of taste, or as choreographer George Balanchine once put it: "Some like it hot and some like it cold, and I like ice cream." All of the music pieces are brief, sharp, and visually suggestive, like moments stolen from a movie -- aural clips. Just when one expects momentum, the synthesized soundwave suddenly drifts away, and then is replaced by different convergences of metronome, fretless bass, and articulated feedback... Yet the album doesn't lack expressiveness: "St. Elmo's Fire" is one of Eno's most beautiful songs -- lyrical, vivid, fluidly fleet, a wedding of visual clarity and aural spaciousness -- and the album ends with a Ravelesque flourish which is startlingly beautiful. Other tracks have piercing moments, like stabs of light.

Eno is of course capable of more than just moments, and at first I found the tense leisureliness of Another Green World puzzling; the back cover photograph (Eno reading, reclining against a large blank wall) and song titles ("Golden Hours," "Becalmed," "Spirits Drifting") suggested a reflective artist dangerously at the edge of indifference. And the lyrics to "Golden Hours" -- "I can't see the lines I used to read between...Perhaps my brains are old and scrambled" -- have a sophisticated ennui, laced with self-pity, that ominously augured the possibility that Eno could start trafficking in precious self-indulgent inertia, not unlike the way Neil Young markets his brand of strangled-voice melancholy.

That possibility is both confirmed and routed in Discreet Music, an album which may be the first pop masterpiece of inertia. The sense of slow flowing which is intimated in Another Green World is deepened here, so deepened that the inertia takes on a haunting, hypnotic purity. In the liner notes, Eno writes that he conceived of Discreet Music following an accident which left him bedridden; he put on an album of harp music but, upon returning to bed, discovered that the sound was too low and that one channel was completely inaudible. He didn't have the strength to get out of bed and adjust the set, so the situation offered "a new way of hearing music -- as part of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience." So, influenced by Erik Satie, he set out "to make a piece that could be listened to and yet be ignored..." Well, the cunning bastard has succeeded smashingly, though his aesthetic triumph will never be a commercial one since there isn't a radio station in the country which will play it: at first listen Discreet Music sounds pretty and melodic, but as an aesthetic gesture it's much more radical than Metal Machine Music, and I can't imagine anyone having the courage to put it over on the airwaves.

Side one -- which, like the album, is called "Discreet Music" -- is an uninterrupted synthesized motif consisting of two melodic lines which, once set in motion, are repeated eternally with only marginal distortions in timbre. I remember reading once that the chilling advantage a computer has over a programmer is that, once programmed, the computer will always give the same answer; 10,000 years from now one could feed a question into a unit and the correct answer would be given... a computer never forgets. Eno acknowledges this eternal aspect of metal-machine music when he talks about the "self-regulating and self-generating systems" into which melodic lines can be programmed; indeed, with its stately, formal tranquillity, side one sounds like eavesdropping on the brainwaves of a sleeping computer.

So, no, you can't dance to it. Or make love to it. Or turn it up loud to annoy your neighbors. (In fact, it's the only album I know of which comes with the recommendation that it be played at low volume.) It's lullingly beautiful, both intimate and distant, like music heard at night from a distant shore, and it has a calming, meditative effect... soon every molecule in the room has been reduced to balletic drowsiness. This almost translucent serenity makes Discreet Music more radical than MMM because Reed's knife-scraping-the-edge-of-the-universe soundtrack had a psychotic willfulness, yet the underlying purpose was old-fashioned -- to outrage the straights. (You know: épater la bourgeoisie.) Eno's album, however, has a Kubrick cool, a tacit faith in the benevolence of the machine, and his refusal to irritate the listener is more avant-garde a stance than the traditional A/G artiste approach of "Kill them with dissonance." So many so-called avant-garde performers try to pummel the audience with harsh, abrasive sounds and images in order to shake them out of their waking slumber, out of their cultivated lethargy. Eno isn't interested in that. Instead, he uses lethargy and distills it into a revelatory restfulness; Eno's static bed-ridden state has been transformed in Discreet Music into a synthesizer-poem which perfectly captures the sense of time inexorably pulsing beneath the surface of daily life.

And, God, I haven't even written about side two yet.

And I'm not going to, because the languid Three Variations don't interest me nearly as much as the riverrun abstractness of side one. One now wonders how far Eno will go from "Discreet"; I hope that he doesn't go so deeply into the coils of the machine that he completely abandons the multi-layered dynamism of Here Come the Warm Jets. I mean, too much purity is unhealthy. (At least I think that's what John Cale proves with his blurry-eyed, drunkenly vibrant Helen of Troy.) So when Eno gets tired of convalescence, one hopes that his window offers a view which will inspire him into new action. Just because he's taken Tiger Mountain (by strategy) doesn't mean that there aren't icy peaks hidden somewhere over the next horizon, awaiting his siege.