Brian Eno
Photo: Cecily Eno / Sacks & Co.

Brian Eno Soundtracks the Anthropocene in FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE’s ‘Forever Voiceless Edition’

Are words of equivalent value to sound in the making and understanding of modern music? Brian Eno’s Forever Voiceless Edition confronts these issues.

FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE (Forever Voiceless Edition)
Brian Eno
Verve / UMC
22 April 2023

The man speaks! Or rather sings. Maybe a bit of both. Regardless, Brian Eno‘s voice is present on FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE (2022), which is, if not unheard of, still noteworthy. This fact distinguishes last year’s release from this year’s FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE (Forever Voiceless Edition), out this month, which has no vocal tracks. The subtitle of this edition indicates as much, but there is a significant difference in feeling and meaning between both recordings.  

I am happy to report that this removal is something of an improvement. Eno’s vocals, to put it one way, ruin the ambiance. Like his earlier album, The Ship (2016), his vocal delivery on the 2022 LP has a plangent quality that, against his signature backdrop of electronic instrumentation, assumes a God-like quality, as if Eno is a New Age shaman dispensing prophecies and other divine insights. This oracular approach does have good intentions. His focus is on the dire state of the world, especially the natural world, and FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE, as suggested by its title, underscores the fragility of life and even the cosmos. Consisting of ten tracks and clocking in at around 45 minutes, the album is neither apocalyptic nor sanguine. The perplexing dilemma is in the execution: the album, in words and music, sounds like the transfiguration of Brian Eno.

The spooky, ethereal opening track “Who Gives a Thought” begins, for example, with the line “Who gives a thought about the fireflies? / Short lives of moving light perform their quiet flight / The stars of starless nights.” The following lines then ask, “Who gives a thought about the nematodes? / There isn’t time these days for microscopic worms / Or for unstudied germs of no commercial worth.” Another set of lines asks about the plight of workers. You get the idea. The third track, “Icarus or Blériot”, questions the technological ambitions of humankind and the inevitability of hubris, albeit in fewer words. “Blériot” presumably refers to Louis Blériot, an aviation pioneer who, in 1909, became the first to fly across the English Channel. The ominous “Garden of Stars”, which sounds like it could be a mood piece from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s legendary unmade film of Dune, declares, “These billion years will end / They end in me.” 

Perhaps only Brian Eno – one of the true intellectuals in rock and popular music – can get away with extravagant lyrics like these. To be fair, though never stated by Eno as such, these two LPs might be said to be preoccupied with the Anthropocene – a term loosely defined as the “Age of Man”. Academic debate has ensued over the implications of naming the Anthropocene, and its uses and meaning have primarily fallen into two opposing sides. On the one hand, the Anthropocene designates our current global situation with the dominance of humankind as a species and our extractive capitalist system annihilating other life forms and destroying the planet wholesale. On the other hand, the Anthropocene also indicates the precariousness of humankind, that humans will eventually become extinct; we are but one temporary occupant in the longer span of Earth’s geological time. In the same way that the Pleistocene ended, so will the Anthropocene.   

One could perceive Eno’s tacit embrace of the Anthropocene, in both senses of the term, as inevitable. Starting with the proto-ambient Discreet Music (1975) and later Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978), Eno has been engrossed with how sound and music can engage and generate new temporalities and spatial sensibilities. Politics aside, soundtracking the Anthropocene, with its impossible scale and grand overtones, might have been a project too tempting to pass up. Following in the footsteps of John Cage and the avatars of musique concrète, Eno’s long-term argument has been that music is more than instrumentation and events like concerts that entail a congregation of players and listeners who assemble and then disperse. In his more expansive definition, music is about bringing natural and unnatural sounds that are in the background into the foreground – the hums, rhythms, and beats that provide an aural context to our lives. In an everyday sense, this could mean street traffic, birdsong, children laughing, water dripping, the wind thrumming through a grove of trees, or the din of sleeping machines. 

In his essay “The Recording Studio as Compositional Tool”, first delivered as a lecture in 1979, Eno discusses how such an approach to music takes shape at a practical level. “The effect of recording is that it takes music out of the time dimension and puts it in the space dimension,” he remarks at one point. “As soon as you do that, you’re in a position of being able to listen again and again to a performance, to become familiar with details you most certainly had missed the first time through, and to become very fond of details that weren’t intended by the composer or the musicians.” The studio, in short, provides a means of stepping outside of the constraints of real-time to explore other temporalities and spaces, including those celestial and epochal in scope.

These long-ago insights apply to both FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE and its non-verbal successor. Indeed, the juxtaposition of these two albums poses fascinating questions beyond giving the listener two options. Musically, both albums have a cosmic quality, as expected, given the themes at hand. I was reminded of the brooding tracks on the soundtrack to Darren Aronofsky’s time-traveling romance The Fountain (2006), composed by Clint Mansell, formerly of Pop Will Eat Itself. Yet FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE (Forever Voiceless Edition) improves upon Eno’s 2022 release by allowing the sonic details and layers of composition to be heard more clearly, per his 1979 observations. 

Forever Voiceless Edition, in effect, sounds like Brian Eno being Brian Eno. Tracks like “Chéri”, “Hardly Me”, and the closer “Silence” traffic through more emotional states and with greater complexity than many lyric-driven songs by other musicians. This record reminds you how Eno’s influence has become so pervasive that it is practically undetectable, with seemingly every yoga studio and meditation podcast drawing upon his aesthetic without acknowledgment. Eno’s artistic impact is itself ambient. 

Equally significant, however, is how these two records, when listened to side by side, raise consideration of what role lyrics have in music. Eno’s ambient work since the 1970s has implicitly challenged the logo-centrism of rock music and modern pop music more generally. Eno is the anti-Bob Dylan. Beyond playing with time and space, his compositions have frequently retained a Freudian quality by entering and exploring dream-like states of the unconscious. Time is fluid and non-linear, it goes in different directions, and it is often repeated and circular in a Nietzschean manner through the use of tape loops and other studio tricks. The half-formed mirage is privileged over concrete perception and reality. Unreason is favored over reason.  

This is why FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE (Forever Voiceless Edition) is better compositionally than its predecessor, even if the messaging is lost. Some tracks like “There Were Bells” from FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE harbor a certain beauty due to their more grounded lyrical world. Yet, Eno’s lyrics and singing bring the listener to the awakened realm of consciousness, the domain of certitude and reason, which, as stated, seems antithetical to the promise and principles of ambient music. Without Eno’s words, the listener is empowered to let their mind wander, expand, and contemplate. The music is a facilitator. FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE (Forever Voiceless Edition) permits this possibility. Indeed, this is one of the essential features of ambient music. 

By releasing both albums, Eno does not appear to be wanting it both ways or to be second-guessing himself. The fate of the world aside, Eno is instead posing a set of conceptual tensions and questions about the opportunities and limits of ambient music. Are lyrics essential to communicating urgent ideas? Is ambient music too limited or esoteric for our crisis-ridden time? Are words ultimately of equivalent value to sound in the making and understanding of modern music? Taken together, FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE (Forever Voiceless Edition) and its precursor confront these issues. In a manner reflective of Eno’s characteristic intelligence, they continue his longstanding interest in the future, musical and otherwise.

RATING 8 / 10