Brian Eno has essentially the most amazing résumé in indie rock, and given the profile of a good many of his collaborators through the years, that’s saying a lot. He’s worked with David Bowie and David Byrne; produced records by Devo, Talking Heads and U2; and was a founding member of Roxy Music. And then there’s his solo career, which spans from a quartet of groundbreaking pop albums such as Here Come the Warm Jets and Another Green World, as well as a series of pioneering electronic albums like Music For Airports and Discreet Music. And he even made Coldplay sound more interesting.
Of late, however, Eno’s work has been drifting closer to pop music than he has in ages. In 2008, he released Whatever Happens Will Happen Today with David Byrne, a much more pop-oriented work than their legendary 1982 album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. And last year, Eno aligned with Warp Records, marking an incredible and perhaps inevitable point in history in which one of electronic music’s most important artists joined forces with its most important independent label. His first album for Warp, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, largely comprised rejected film score work for Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, but its nods to jungle, industrial and shoegazer put it somewhat closer to contemporary pop than its conceptual identity might have otherwise suggested.
Still, Eno has in no way shown much interest in going “pop” proper in recent years, but rather a penchant for making abstraction more accessible. This is strongly evident in his latest work, Drums Between the Bells, a collaborative work with poet Rick Holland. As such, it is an album that combines stylistically shifting soundscapes with spoken word, marking yet another odd but nonetheless compelling entry in Eno’s discography. Holland’s verse is delivered through a variety of voices, many of them female, some of them robotic, and all of them complemented by Eno’s carefully crafted sonic backing.
Much of Drums Between the Bells is serene and atmospheric, which unsurprisingly makes an ideal setting for poetic verse. The nearly seven-minute “The Real” is a stunning example of the complementary relationship between the two artists’ work, Eno’s ambient waves gently floating beneath a female voice, which, halfway through, transitions into a vocoder-addled robo-chirp. Similarly, “Dreambirds” features gentle, albeit somewhat meandering piano, ultimately an unobtrusive but still somewhat strange accompaniment, billowing into space-age synth effects toward the end.
Eno isn’t content to take the path of least resistance, however, often matching his vocal counterparts with challenging arrangements that sometimes steal the show. Opener “Bless This Space” is one such highlight, its head-nodding beat jazz groove dancing around a series of monosyllabic chants. The excellent “Glitch” is one of the album’s most exciting moments, a buzzing sci-fi jam that’s funky and psychedelic, and a much-needed dose of adrenaline amid much of the album’s airier calm. With “Sounds Alien” and “Fierce Aisles of Light,” however, Eno opts for a much noisier sound, one that’s lively but a bit disorienting, yet never boring.
The strange paradox of Drums Between the Bells is that none of its pieces are inherently catchy or hook-driven, but ultimately all relatively accessible. Eno’s made a career of challenging music, and this album certainly fits the bill, but he also rarely makes music that alienates. Drums Between the Bells is a curious project, and its spoken word nature might have greater appeal to those with a firm appreciation of poetry. No matter the bias, however, this is a strong artistic statement that not only reaffirms a decades-long legacy of innovation and experimentation, but offers an excellent listen just this side of your comfort zone.