5 Albums: Brian Eno
Original Story by Don Morgan (2017-02-15)
To celebrate #U2JT30 and the launch of the tour, U2Songs is exploring the work of the talented studio team behind U2’s iconic fifth album. We’ll begin with a man who hardly needs an introduction: Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, RD.
There have been volumes written about Brian Eno already—as a member of Roxy Music, as a producer, as a collaborator with David Bowie, as a performer, and as a visual artist. His career has been long, diverse, and eclectic. Although he’s often categorized on the more “arty” end of the musical spectrum, he’s actually worked with a broad range of pop acts, including Coldplay, Belinda Carlisle, Icehouse, Daryl Hall, Dido, Andrea Corr, and Roy Orbison.
When it comes to U2, of course, The Joshua Tree was Eno’s second outing with the band after 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire (both were co-produced with Daniel Lanois, whose work we’ll explore in another installment). Bono has credited Eno with breathing life into two of U2’s most iconic songs from those albums: “What makes [With or Without You] special is Brian Eno’s sequencer; he did for ‘With or Without You’ what he’d done for ‘Bad,’ sketched it out and improvised.” With or without Lanois (ha! get it?), Eno also lent his skills to Rattle and Hum, Achtung Baby, Zooropa, Original Soundtracks 1, the Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and No Line on the Horizon.
With so many albums and years to his credit, it’s nearly impossible to narrow down Eno’s work outside U2 to just five albums. Nevertheless, beyond the obvious associations with Roxy Music and David Bowie, here are five essential albums that bear the Eno stamp, whether as producer, performer, collaborator—or sometimes all three at once!
Brian Eno and David Byrne/My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
It wasn’t a chart-topper by any means, but this 1981 collaboration between Eno and David Byrne is now recognized as one of the most influential albums of the 80s. Although constructed entirely on analogue equipment, the techniques Eno and Byrne used to craft My Life in the Bush of Ghosts would be embraced and perfected by a generation of hip-hop and electronica artists as the decade progressed and the art of sampling emerged. The duo used tapes of existing voices—radio talk show hosts, angry preachers, and world music recordings (this was long before “world music” was a genre)—and played them over instrumental tracks they had recorded in the studio with a group of musicians including Bill Laswell, Robert Fripp, and Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz. Without the aid of digital technology, the vocals and instrumentals could only be combined through happy accidents and the process of trial and error. The end result is at times funky and at times downright scary, but always musical and fun. Truly an inspired album.
Brian Eno/Music for Films
This 1978 album represents the tip of the proverbial iceberg of instrumental and ambient music that Eno has released over the years. In the liner notes, he writes that some of the music “was made specifically for use as soundtrack material, some of it was made for other reasons but found its way into films.” Sound familiar? Eno employed a similar rationale with U2 on the Passengers project in 1995. With contributions from John Cale, Rhett Davies, Phil Collins, and many others, the first Music for Films displays some of the atmospheric and evocative production techniques that have been hallmarks of Eno’s career. Other instrumental albums worth exploring include the Ambient series, Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (with Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno), Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics (with Jon Hassell), Thursday Afternoon, The Shutov Assembly, The Drop, and The Pearl (with Harold Budd and Daniel Lanois). The Pearl will hold particular interest for U2 fans, as the track “Against the Sky” was sampled and incorporated into the melody of “Cedars of Lebanon” from No Line on the Horizon.
Brian Eno/Nerve Net
A lot of people will say that 1975’s Another Green World is Eno’s classic “pop” or song-based album. And it is fantastic. But let us not overlook 1992’s quirky, danceable Nerve Net, on which Eno shares production duties with Markus Draws in order to shift more of his own focus to singing and performing. Released between Achtung Baby and Zooropa, it’s interesting to consider how Eno’s work from this era deals with information overload at the dawn of the digital revolution. Nerve Net, especially, sounds like a melting pot of ideas and themes, with singing, spoken-word passages, samples, rock guitar, jazz, and Eno’s signature ambient textures all combined into a chaotic musical stew. This album is also noteworthy for producing two CD singles, including “Ali Click,” with 40+ minutes of remixes from The Grid and Markus Draws, and “Fractal Zoom,” a sprawling, 12-track, 70+ minute single with a wide range of reinterpretations of the song by Moby. Also look for the 2014 deluxe edition of Nerve Net, which pairs the original 1992 release with My Squelchy Life, a much-bootlegged and previously unreleased early version of the album.
Talking Heads/Fear of Music
Brian Eno produced three albums with Talking Heads, including More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979), and Remain in Light (1980). (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was actually recorded between Fear of Music and Remain in Light but not released until 1981.) The critical consensus is that Remain in Light is the band’s crowning achievement, and while it is justifiably considered a classic, Fear of Music gets the edge here. Eno’s production takes the band’s off-kilter rhythms and lyrics and makes them sound both more accessible and more off-kilter at the same time. Lead track “I Zimbra” has been described as the sound of “African disco” while “Memories Can’t Wait” boasts one of Byrne’s most impassioned vocal performances. Although not released as a single, the album track “Heaven” has been covered by a number of other artists over the years. A 2012 article in The Atlantic describes Eno’s indelible influence on Fear of Music: “Though purportedly a producer perched behind the audio controls, Eno in fact acted as something of a muse or musical guru, introducing the band to a new approach to constructing songs and thinking about songcraft in general.” Depending on who you ask, Eno’s presence was either the best thing to happen to the band, or the beginning of the end. Rather than diving into that particular argument, just put Fear of Music on your headphones, crank the volume to 11, and let the music speak for itself.
Released the same year as Achtung Baby, Geoffrey Oryema’s Exile is noteworthy because it’s an album that doesn’t necessarily sound like a typical Eno production. Oryema is a Ugandan singer-songwriter who fled Idi Amin’s regime and eventually relocated to France, only to be discovered by organizers of the WOMAD (World of Music, Arts, and Dance) festival. That led to an introduction to Peter Gabriel and the opportunity to record at Realworld Studios in the UK. Exile was one of the earliest successes on Gabriel’s fledgling Realworld Records label, due in no small part to Eno’s sensitive production, which retained the largely acoustic nature of Oryema’s songs, sung in Swahili and Acholi. The instrumentation is sparse, carried primarily by Oryema’s voice, acoustic guitar, and nanga (a seven-string harp), with Eno, Gabriel, and a handful of collaborators adding sonic color to some tracks. One review notes that “Oryema’s debut album achieved poignancy without going in for over-the-top backing and its sober feel marked something of a turning-point in African music, pioneering a new style of simple, acoustic arrangement rather than the big-band feel that had been in vogue throughout the 80s.” Oryema’s music would embrace a bigger, more “Western” sound in later years (Eno mixed the lead single on his sophomore Realworld album, Beat the Border), but Exile remains a critical and fan favorite. Brian Eno was able to capture a quiet, warm, subdued sound that makes Exile the shining jewel of Oryema’s career.