Saturday, July 12, 2014

Brian Eno: Here Come the Warm Jets (1974)



A quick breath of artful liveliness on the heels of Eno's departure from Roxy Music, Here Come the Warm Jets sets the stage for one of the truly distinctive careers in pop music of the 1970s. Written and recorded (almost simultaneously), quickly to boot, with the kind of restlessly fussy enthusiasm that prompted the Velvet Underground's less polished sonic experiments not too many years earlier, the album is surprisingly immediate for something that was created in the interest of throwing unrelated musicians and ideas together and seeing what might happen.

Eno's sensibility is easy to brush under the glam rock rug, but what he's really doing here is proving himself one of the few experimentalists capable of taking up the Beatles' mantle of using the studio as an instrument. In that regard he is of course a kindred spirit of David Bowie, and the first few Eno albums frequently resemble Bowie's work from the same period, albeit with a more personable, less rehearsed quality. Several songs here -- in particular "Needle in the Camel's Eye," "Cindy Tells Me" and "Blank Frank" -- are almost power pop. The whole record charms because it's "big" and enveloping without abandoning the vagueness and subtlety that make Eno's writing and singing so provocative. Even now that it's passed into the textbooks as a small-scale rock classic, it feels just weird enough to belong to you -- smart and florid without lapsing into pretension.

The Beatles and Bowie comparisons come up because the recordings as often as the songs themselves are playfully arch and weird, arty without prog, and consistently surprising. Like his influences, Eno has a knack for tossing left-field and even unmusical ideas into larger pieces so seamlessly that they all transform into absolutely convincing radio music. In the abstract, "Baby's on Fire" is intense and disturbing, a bottom-heavy forecast of Devo and Suicide that extrapolates into dissonance, but couched between confectionary monsters "The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch" and "Cindy Tells Me" it's all windows-down fun despite the desperation of it all. Even the VU couldn't quite achieve that.

Lyrically, not much of it makes much sense because it's very much an album of sounds -- word sounds as well as the instrumental and mysterious kind -- but the feminist philosophy at the core of the brilliant "Cindy Tells Me" are as welcome as the blissful surrender of "On Some Faraway Beach," the song that utterly defines the philosophical core of Eno's work for the next decade. "Cindy" is a dip into Eno's most ardent pop friendliness -- its melody and hooks ("that's what they want and that's what they choose" read with joy, not dismissal) don't challenge, they tittilate, all hope and no alienation, and as gloriously uplifting as any AM chestnut from the period. But "Beach," despite being clearly the work of the same artist, could scarcely be more different, not so much a wall of sound as a bed of it, deliberately poetic and withdrawn in every way that "Cindy Tells Me" is specific.

These songs both reveal Eno's gift for forming an entire composition into an irreducible work of art through his brilliance as a producer, but one is for our gut and one's for our heart -- he achieves hazy emotion, defined by us, but he does so through playing and arrangement, a triumph of complete nonverbal communication that builds gradually (no vocals for three minutes) and peaks quickly, so much a phenomenon of swimming in sonic beauty that even its deeply moving piano coda feels like a momentous moment of high drama. Such powerful creations, both of these, but "Faraway Beach" demonstrates Eno achieving transcendence in heretofore unimaginable ways, wringing something human and effective from the simplest of ideas and the most seemingly sterile basis of knob-twiddling, carefully engineered atmosphere. He'd be doing a lot more of this in no time.

The rest of this is the sound of a superb voice finding itself -- shambolic piano things, cranky menace, meaty and thick bass and synths, stereo drum immersion, dirges with hooks, eccentric spoken word tidbits and what sounds like a lost Les Paul and Mary Ford jam (in the latter half of "Some of Them Are Old," which otherwise resembles a Beach Boys outtake from their late '60s art-rock period). There are enough strange noises and itching, irresistible hooks on this record to keep a person busy for years, but what sticks with you is the odd, stilted beauty of it all, occasionally opening up to a stunningly unguarded and expansive moment like "On Some Faraway Beach" and the title cut. Eno's weirdness is so intimate, both more introspective and more grandiose than almost any other major artist of the '70s -- his preoccupations are wide-ranging, musical theater on up to Lou Reed at his nastiest -- and Here Come the warm Jets reveals him as a craftsman of the highest order for his ability to tie it all together.

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