Drawn From Life is the first premium Eno in many years, a peculiar mixture of his muzak and movie-score modes. And it’s about time. It’s the charm and curse of ambient music that its drones and keyboard textures aren’t concrete enough to suggest notation, much less publication as sheet music. Its very bonelessness should make it ideal for movie background or contemplation. But the work of the genre’s inventor is far from anonymous: Brian Eno’s best ambient instrumental work is so quickly recognizable that in films like Trainspotting and Safe it often plays against the foreground action. This effect probably appears in the “generative” computer music concepts that accompany his art exhibitions, where they could dominate an environment the way a stage whisper eventually undermines a group conversation. And for all that, Eno’s pure soundtrack work screwed over his regular ambient albums.
From Discreet Music (1975) to Thursday Afternoon (1985), his kind of electronic muzak caused you to sleep with one eye open. That’s not a put-down: it might suggest a mid-winter contemplation of bare trees and still waters but also encourages a little romantic afterglow (find The Pearl , with pianist Harold Budd for terrific late-night music). But a retrospective of Eno’s work from the last decade could be called (With)Drawn From Life. The picture of Eno that illustrates this work appeared in a television documentary from almost ten years ago.
In his home studio, he triggered a couple of keys out of a bank of synthesizers as steep as a drafting table, and lo! Eno could’ve taken a toilet break while programmed ‘bells’, ‘ghostly’ string sounds and muted piano evoked his unique sonic blend of ineffectuality and ethereality. We could expect nothing less from his legendary technophila, but the image was still disappointing. It too easily explained stiff-listening stuff like The Nerve Net and the drone collection The Shutov Assembly (both 1992) that truly tested patience. As for each and every one of the seven notes that comprised Neroli (1993), they provoked the Forbidden Critical Thought: “Hell, I can do that!” And the corollary: “Can I put out an album on Opal / All Saints too?”
It wasn’t until 1997 that the inventor of ambient music finally tried to renew his patent with The Drop. The production traded his trademark “dirty” sound for actual tunes framed with lounge-core percussion, making Eno’s strongest muzak-etc. since he stopped collaborating with Budd.
Drummer and DJ J. Peter Schwalm is a workmate worth paying attention to, as well. The inside album cover of Drawn From Life contains a photo of Schwalm attracting Eno’s attention to a sheet of paper on a music stand, with expressions that are unintentionally amusing: Schwalm looks as if he’s just realized that the paper is really a menu, while Eno siegnorially refrains from comment. But it’s heartening: a little work went into his best album in years. Basically, Schwalm plays drums while Eno’s synthesizer textures confidently build from the half-baked movie music he made with U2—Passengers (1995) and Million-Dollar Hotel (2000). The tunes are arranged like so much noirish movie music, not enough like environmental music, and Schwalm’s traction threatens sometimes to unbalance the melodic details. But even vague tracks like “Persis” have plump textures and insinuating rhythms. Nell Catchpole’s violins add choice grains of sandpaper as they writhe through the opener “From This Moment”, while the other synthesized textures are shaped by instruments old (the strings on “Rising Dust”, Leo Abrahams’ guitar on “Intenser”) and experimental (the IBM dictaphone used by Holger Czukay). “Like Pictures Part #2” (sic) wafts along nicely without the Laurie Anderson reading that mars “. . . Part #1”. This is the one recurring weakness in Eno’s music. His use of spoken-word segments were an annoyance as far back as My Life In The Bush of Ghosts (1981, with David Byrne), where they were electronically treated. The new voiceovers are just as irritating, though you understand every word. But Eno tries to finesse this drawback by actually singing a song about why he doesn’t sing: “One voice booms out inappropriately” through a vocorder that splits tones into Eno’s booming baritone and a child-like upper register. This little song is surrounded by two versions of “Bloom”, one with actual childrens’ voices, one totally instrumental. From the heartbeat pulse to the glistening synthesizers to the fake “theramin”, it’s one of the finest tunes to be found on any Eno album. If anyone makes a movie out of the old Dark Shadows series, they can update their theme music right here.