Two naturally complementary collaborators make half of an OK album and half of what could have been one of the best records of the year.
If he was merely concerned with his reputation and/or legacy, Brian Eno would never need to make another record. As a musician, a producer, an aphorist, a gadfly, a bon vivant, a guru, a thinker, Eno has contributed more than enough to modern pop culture. But, of course, nothing he’s ever said or done really leaves one with the impression that he’s ever going to leave well enough alone. Arguably his own musical career entered a state of diminishing returns years (decades?) ago, but Eno was always a better theorist anyways, and most of the releases he’s involved in tend to have something worth finding within.
One of Eno’s relatively recent contributions to the discussion is the idea of "scenius", the idea that sometimes groups of people or specific cultural context seem to exhibit the kind of genius we tend to want to ascribe to specific individuals. Although Eno’s usually regarded as slightly sui generis, you could definitely make an argument that a good deal of his talent lies in his knack for spotting and gravitating to, sometimes helping create, pockets of that genius. Fittingly enough, he and Underworld’s Karl Hyde first worked together at length in the Pure Scenius project (along with, among others, astonishing Australian trio the Necks -- if only this album was a full-length collaboration with them too). Hyde is about as opposite to Eno as you can get while still being basically similar. If the latter’s diversity of work is a bit overstated, Hyde is so identified with the (admittedly great) Underworld as to be underrated. Whatever the truth of their respective compositional strategies, it can be hard not to view Hyde and Eno as fitting into opposed categories: stream of consciousness vs. conceptual scheme, spontaneous vs. composed, id vs. superego, heart vs. head.
The result of their collaboration, then, ought to be interesting, and it is. But it’s also, as with most of Eno’s projects these days, kind of flawed, and it suffers initially from not getting off on the right foot. "The Satellites" is a song that can grow on you, sure, but the production’s reliance on tinny, synthetic-sounding horns parping away is likely to dissuade some from making the effort in the first place. And the song never really builds to anything, even as it sounds like the song on Someday World that’s the furthest from a collaboration. It could have fit on an Eno album with little trouble. A far better intro would have been the second track, "Daddy’s Car". A tightly clipped little organ motif introduces a nicely shuffling production, and when the singing starts you get Eno’s impossibly plummy tones and Hyde’s friendly Romford accent together. The song itself still sounds of a piece with Eno’s less ambient recent work, but also with Underworld’s fine Barking album, and Hyde gives the narrative a nicely impressionistic edge. If you’re disappointed by a collaboration sounding pretty much exactly what you’d think it would sound like, I suppose you’d be disappointed, but by the time Eno ends the track by shifting into a weirdly heartwarming, quietly shouted account of riding on your father’s shoulders "for the thrill of it" it feels like exactly what they should be doing together.
Unfortunately that feeling only surfaces intermittently throughout the album. Some of the material is merely a little inert; the idea of Eno and Hyde making a song about making songs proves to more interesting than the pleasant enough "Strip It Down", and Hyde’s known talent for doggerel can’t quite save the drifting "Mother of a Dog". Those tracks wouldn’t stand out as much if not for tracks like the surprisingly intense "Witness", a love song that pulls out to focus wider and wider until we’re looking at the end of the world and the glorious chaos of human existence; Hyde’s guitar at the beginning evokes the similarly openhearted Underworld track "Diamond Jigsaw", but by the time the track zooms in again to return to the basic point ("well well well well well between one and two AM/I miss you I miss you I miss you I miss you I miss you again and again and again and again and again and again and again…") "Witness" is, if anything, even more affecting than that song. "Witness" isn’t even remotely sentimental, but it is directly emotional in a way that people are sometimes uncomfortable with.
The worst track here, by a significant margin, takes the opposite approach to "Witness". Maybe "When I Built This World" is making a subtle point or joke I’m not getting, but on the face of it it’s a robotized Eno squawking out the proclamations of a god (or maybe more correctly a demiurge) that might as well be the strawman of the worst of the new atheists’ dreams. One doesn’t have to be religious to find the song risible, mainly because Eno never does anything with his god-character beyond being kind of portentous and spooky. Even Eno’s old pal David Bowie did a more nuanced, interesting take on these kinds of issues with "A Better Future" from Heathen. "When I Built This World" feels like Eno taking potshots at a fish in a barrel he’s built for himself, and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, especially compared to more generous material here like the preceding "Who Rings the Bell", which builds out from the title and other, similarly small-scale questions to, again, try and grapple with the scope of our lives on earth. Hyde’s vocal performance on that song is among his best here (unsurprisingly, most of the better songs on the album let him take the lead vocally), wistful, curious, and committed.
The things that’s most frustrating about Someday World, then, is not that some of the songs are great and some aren’t. Instead, it’s that there seems to be another, much better album lurking in here. If you take "Daddy’s Car", the steadily building "A Man Wakes Up", "Witness", "Who Rings the Bell", and the closing, valedictory "To Us All", you have the bones of a braver album, one that sees these two seasoned artists grappling with trying to depict something big and true about the shape of human life, trying unabashedly to reach for something moving. On the half of this album where Eno and Hyde do try for that, they succeed wonderfully. On the other half, they certainly seem to be having fun, but it can’t help but be disappointing in comparison.