A quartet of welcome reissues of some of Eno’s 1990s output, complete with extras
The 1990s was an excellent decade for Brian Eno. He’d made his name, of course, in Roxy Music, before it turned out there was insufficient room for his and Bryan Ferry’s large personalities within the group. He did his most historically vital work in the 1970s, assisting Bowie in his European transition (which helped turn round the sensibilities of subsequent rock counterculture from American fixation to Europhilia) and producing his series of ambient recordings. However, these were considered by critics as impressive but academic, of little relevance to mainstream development.
Come the post-rave culture, ambient was now a key part of the afterglow of pop, a key usage. Eno was vindicated; furthermore, he was right at the centre of things, producing U2. He was a wealthy, revered and influential figure in a flush decade for music, but by no means complacent. The recordings he made in the early 90s showed that his unabashed thirst for new ideas about the formal possibilities for pop music and what it could potentially constitute was unabated.
‘Nerve Net’ (1992) was a relatively busy, bustling offering by Eno’s standards, reminiscent of some of the livelier passages of his 1977 ‘Before And After Science’ album. He himself described ‘Nerve Net’ in self-penned notes for Warners as a record that “draws on jazz, funk, rap, rock, pop, ambient and ‘world music’… what it turns out as is none of these things but a weird and self-contradictory mess, and a mess that I love – like paella, everything I like is in there somewhere”.
Certainly, there’s a feeling of splurge and abandon about ‘Nerve Net’, on which he lets his notional hair down, with tracks like ‘I Fall Up’ reminiscent of Talking Heads (a group with whom Eno had played a mentoring/producing role). And yet it retains a sense of formalism – that this is pop music about what pop music could be about – while ‘The Roil, The Choke’ sounds more like an artful assemblage of words juxtaposed for their phonetic effect rather than conventional self-expression.
In contrast, ‘The Shutov Assembly’, released the same year, is a collection of sound installations put together for the benefit of a Russian artist friend who’d had difficultly obtaining Eno’s music in the recently expired Soviet era. Comprising work he had created for mostly European venues, ‘The Shutov Assembly’ is hardly the soundtrack to the end of history heralded by Shutov’s freedom to listen to what he damned well pleased. It heaves and looms and rolls darkly. In its generally ominous mood, it seems to anticipate troubles in Europe ahead (Eno would later be among the few musicians to engage with and explain the fate of war-torn Bosnia and the particular tragedy of that multicultural society in a conflict driven by ethnic tension).
‘Neroli’ (1993) followed at a time when Eno was taking a lively interest in perfume – olfactory ambience and its fundamental role in the human sensory experience struck him as a potential future for artistic endeavour. ‘Neroli’, however, subtitled ‘Music For Thinking’, comes with no scratch ’n’ sniff sleeve. Minimal in extremis, it’s the perfect accompaniment to cerebral cogitation or, as I have found, to the writing process. It turns over its main theme patiently and repeatedly, rotating in unclouded deep mental space. It’s music for when music is too intrusive but silence too unhelpful.
‘The Drop’ (1997) is the least essential of these reissues. Its cover is also curiously perfunctory, a kitschy piece of work featuring the silhouette of a forklift driver. It’s never mediocre (Eno is constitutionally incapable of mediocrity), yet never more than an efficient collection of glacial, angled, funk-inflected sketches. But Brian Eno by this point belonged to a higher pantheon, as much a reference point as an artist, beyond reproach, a place he remains to this day.