Brian Eno - The Ship - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Brian Eno - The Ship

by Sean Hewson Rating:7 Release Date:2016-04-29
Brian Eno, a man of whom James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers once said, "I saw him once, walking through London with a scarf over his shoulder carrying a baguette... He’s the kind of person who thinks doing that is great." For all his scarf wearing, theorising and enabling of two of the worst bands known to mankind, he has also made several great albums of his own, produced a few for others and brought a playfulness to music-making that is invaluable when over-thinking, anxiety or lack of imagination threaten to halt the creative process.
He also has a knack for a cheeky melody that makes his ambient records more than just ambience. The Ship is something of a concept album (isn't everything with Eno?). Read the statement about it on his website if you dare, James Dean Bradfield probably shouldn't bother.
The first song, 'The Ship', takes its lead from Gavin Bryars' 'Raising the Titanic' and places us in and under the water. Calm, ambient sounds mingle with maritime sounds (creaks, bleeps and bells). After almost six minutes the vocals come in. And they're really strange. Somewhere between The Watersons and Daft Punk - heavily processed with folkish melodies and harmonies. As strange as they are, the sound works and, as we will see, has a point. The song ends with more ambient sound, snippets of voices and a disembodied spoken word piece from Eno. The piece as whole meanders a bit too much and doesn't reach the intensity of the following piece.
'Fickle Sun' has three parts. The first is almost as long as 'The Ship' and again starts with ambient sounds. This time they're closer to the weirder end of electronica. The vocal comes in earlier and with a clearer tune and vocal. Eno's voice has aged well and is richer and throatier than on his earlier albums. The intensity builds until a single, heavily-distorted, sustained guitar chord is struck and we enter a dramatic, crashing, mid-section. These are the sounds of war. The heavily-processed vocals appear again alongside Eno's unadorned voice, telling the story of a young soldier. The waves this time are waves of attacks. The snippets of spoken word are back again and the harmony vocals become ever more processed. Eno's lead vocal now sounds tired, like Bowie on 'Where Are We Now?', as ghostly sounds surround him. 
The second part of 'Fickle Sun' ('The Hour is Thin') starts with solo piano and Eno's speaking voice. The effects slowly fall away from his voice as if he is rising from the sea. This short piece is followed by a stunning, joyful cover of The Velvet Underground's 'I'm Set Free'. With the clearing of the effects and the uplifting delivery, I'm Set Free seems to be about coming out of the deep and rising to the surface, or coming out of war into peace. But we have only been set free to find a new illusion (one of Lou Reed's great kind/cruel lyrics) and so we go back into the depths, back into war. "Wave. After. Wave. After. Wave.", as Eno says at the end of the song 'The Ship'.
The three parts of 'Fickle Sun' are excellent and almost rival some of Scott Walker's later albums or Bowie's Blackstar. Unfortunately, The Ship drags a little bit too much for this to be a great album. But, as with all Eno's work it is not short of strong ideas and the concept is clear and well-realised. What you do get with this album, more so than with some of Eno's other work, is the sense of an emotional journey but one that is not resolved. From the struggle with the sea and with the war, to the joy of 'I'm Set Free', only for that joy to be replaced by the realisation that we are heading back into another struggle.

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