od, what a mind. What a songwriter, what a singer, what a producer, what a musician Brian Eno was in the days when he was habitually calling himself a “non-musician.” That was one of his many dry jokes: since his skills didn’t have to do with manual dexterity, he figured they fell in a different category from those of the musicians he worked with. Eno had been playing synthesizers in Roxy Music until he quit in mid-1973, but his primary “instrument” was the tape recorder. (At one point, he owned 31 of them.) Between 1974 and 1977, his extensive recorded output included four studio albums of his own songs—the three reviewed here and 1975’s Another Green World.
Eno is one of the smartest artists who’s ever made a pop recording. His is the kind of smartness that can trip itself up through overthinking, or make for art whose interest is mainly formal. But he dodged that bullet thanks to his other great obsession, which is giving up his conscious mind’s control. He had a particular fondness for setting up systems complicated enough that they could take him somewhere unpredictable; he famously never wrote down his synthesizers’ settings, in order to avoid falling into habits with them. Eno often sang his songs before he figured out what their lyrics were, composing them sound-first and word-second so his subconscious concerns could bubble up. “It is important to remember that all my ideas are generated by the music,” he told an interviewer in 1977. “The music is the practice that creates the ideas that generate the discourse.”
Also, he liked to rock out. His first solo album, 1974’s Here Come the Warm Jets, lunges out of its gates with the gigantic tone-bending riff of “Needles in the Camel’s Eye.” It’s a startlingly simple song—its guitar solo is essentially just the major scale you learn at your first lesson—made glorious by Eno’s fanatical attention to details of arrangement and timbre, and by his one-of-a-kind voice, precise and heady, with the long, rounded vowels of a former chorister.
That’s not all Eno got from the church hymns of his childhood. Like his other ’70s rock records, Warm Jets includes a handful of songs that you could easily think were sacred music if you only caught their melodies. The church appeared in his language, too—there’s a slaughtered heifer preceding the long, terrifying Robert Fripp guitar-spasm that’s the centerpiece of “Baby’s on Fire,” and something like an Our Father emerges from the title track’s deep-in-the-mix lyrics. Even the title of “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” is a mangled Bible quote.
Eno might have gone on to duplicate the album-tour-album-tour pattern of Roxy Music, but the Warm Jets tour was cut off early when his lung collapsed. Once he recovered, he worked almost entirely in the recording studio with a new tool he developed in that period in collaboration with visual artist Peter Schmidt: Oblique Strategies. It was a set of “worthwhile dilemmas”: cards containing cryptic instructions. Whenever he hit a creative impasse, he’d draw a card at random and figure out a way to apply it to the situation at hand. The first Oblique Strategy that Eno wrote was “Honour thy error as a hidden intention”—a very Scriptural way of putting it, and another manifestation of his push-pull relationship with control. (Another famous Oblique Strategy: “Repetition is a form of change.” The demand for a repetition of these albums’ original format has changed them into something experientially different: with this latest reissue, they’re double LPs, with each original album side’s sequence split in half and mastered at 45 RPM.)
A smutty stack of playing cards had appeared on the cover of Here Come the Warm Jets; Eno’s next rock album, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), was inspired by yet another set of cards, a group of postcards derived from one of the Chinese Cultural Revolution’s “model operas.” There’s a touch of peculiar Orientalism about some of these songs (especially “China My China”), a self-consciously mythologized version of what “Asia” might be. For the most part, though, Eno’s lyrics here more generally evoke travel and dislocation—the album’s brilliant in medias res opening line is, “When I got back home I found a message on the door/Sweet Regina’s gone to China, cross-legged on the floor.”
Eno’s main musical collaborator on Tiger Mountain is Roxy Music’s virtuosically flexible guitarist Phil Manzanera, who’s equally at home with the delicate filigrees of “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More” and the arena heroics of “The True Wheel.” But as a loss-of-control freak, Eno was also fascinated by the opposite of virtuosity, and the string section on Tiger Mountain’s “Put a Straw Under Baby” consists of members of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, a group of mostly untrained musicians faking it on classical instruments. (Eno had played clarinet with them and produced two of their albums.) Bassist Brian Turrington gets an arrangement credit for the two-years-too-early-for-punk rampage “Third Uncle,” presumably for the thrilling accident of switching to the “wrong” key halfway through the song.
After 1975’s Another Green World interleaved Eno’s gifts for secular-hymnal songwriting and texture-first instrumental music, he spent a couple of years woodshedding, more or less. He worked with David Bowie on Low and “Heroes”; he oversaw the Obscure Records label’s releases of contemporary classical music. And he tinkered endlessly with the raw materials that would eventually come together as Before and After Science. The legend is that Eno worked on somewhere between 100 and 120 songs for the album, although only the ten that ended up on it have ever surfaced. (There are no bonus tracks on any of the new releases, not even Eno’s non-album singles of the era, the delightfully hormone-crazed 1974 glam-rock yodel “Seven Deadly Finns” and a 1975 cover of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”)
Science is his most kaleidoscopic collection of recordings, partly thanks to its large cast of contributors, including returning guitarists Fripp and Manzanera, Cluster’s Möbi Moebius and Achim Roedelius, Can’s Jaki Liebezeit, and yes, Phil Collins, whose lateral-thinking drum groove on “No One Receiving” is some kind of career peak. It also reflects his fascination with the messy new sounds coming out of New York City: the title of the scrambled rocker “King’s Lead Hat” is an anagram of “Talking Heads,” with whom Eno would be entangled for the next few years. (Eno’s clipped, glassy-eyed vocal sounds less like Talking Heads than like Devo, whose first album he would go on to produce as well.) And it nods to the interdisciplinary history of what he was up to: The album came with four Peter Schmidt prints named after particular Oblique Strategies, and “Kurt’s Rejoinder” folds a recording of Dada-affiliated artist Kurt Schwitters into Eno’s jumprope-rhyme absurdities.
But Before and After Science is also the most conceptually elegant of Eno’s ’70s song-albums. He explained that he used “science” to mean “techniques and rational knowledge,” the Ithaca he was always drawn back to and always trying to escape. The first half of the album is splashing toward understanding, and the second half is drifting away from it. Almost every lyric touches on the idea of navigating bodies of water. Its closing hymn, “Spider and I,” is set in a “world without sound.”
There goes the cool jest: that impossible world is the only one in which Eno would be able to surrender his cybernetic practice. Every song Eno created was the product of his experimentation—his techniques to escape technique, his reasoning about how to bypass rationality—but his art as a musician lay partly in evaluating the outcomes of his experiments, deciding which ones were fantastically interesting, and discarding the rest. Determining what work the rest of the world gets access to is the artist’s final bulwark of control.