Album Review: Brian Eno’s “The Ship”

Brian Eno—a musician, composer and producer famous almost equally for all three—released his 26th solo album this past Friday. With a career beginning in the ‘70s with all of these solo albums, and about the same amount of collaborative albums, many of his produced efforts as well as work in writing, educating and visual art, it is incredible to most that Eno continues to innovate to this day. However, his new album “The Ship” does exactly that, providing not only calming and alluring soundscapes, but cryptic and imagerial lyrics throughout.

The opening title track—the longest on the album—encompasses aspects common to Eno’s ambient music. It was nothing out of the blue for an ambient artist such as Eno. Lush strings and synth pads create a beautiful canvas for mysterious beeping and vocals. This really solidifies the ship imagery—the lushness being like the calming waters and the simple electronic tones playing the role of the titular ship and its technology. The most interesting component of the first track was the vocals. In a repeated, weary melody, Eno sings of the ship and its journey. As he sings lethargically, the spaces between his words bubble with collages of sounds—beacon-esque beeps, talking over the ship’s radio and even unidentifiable music that contrasts greatly with everything else going on in the track.

The second song—the first part of “Fickle Sun,” a three-part section of the album—contains one of my favorite moments on the album. For the most part, the song builds on the sounds created in the first song, but it features more changes in varying intensity. “Fickle Sun (i)” peaks about halfway in with a stark contrast to its beginning and the first song. Over a bed of static and appliance noises, incredibly dense orchestral hits sound, paired with abrasive high frequencies which are overwhelming but which my ears graciously took in as unexpected and exhilarating. Nearly anyone can place intense moments such as this one in a song, but Eno masterfully prefaces it with a brewing ominousness and slight shifts from the tranquility established in the first 20 or so minutes of the album.

“Fickle Sun (ii) The Hour Is Thin” is probably the most unexpected song of the album, at least for me. Based on my familiarity with Eno, I have a decent idea of what he will do and if I do not, what he does typically makes sense for the most part. But the penultimate song was unlike anything I had heard by him. Simply a piano—reminiscent of his earlier ambient work—and an emotionless voice telling a story, this track left me perplexed. There were mentions of a phoenix—foreshadowing the reawakening and enlightenment in the following song—and war, but a lot is thrown at the listener, and figuring out all the pieces is nearly overwhelming.

However, the significance of “The Hour Is Thin” and the rest of the album sinks in as it cross-fades into the final part of “Fickle Sun” and the final part of the album: “I’m Set Free,” a beautifully moving cover of the Velvet Underground’s original song from their third album. Throughout the album, the listener may notice from the lyrics that the ship has sunk, although the despair is much more explicit and hard to miss. It is most prevalent in “The Hour Is Thin,” where the transition into Lou Reed’s lyrics—“I’m set free/To find a new illusion”—are heavy with sadness, yet also optimism. The cover also serves as a touching homage from Eno to Reed, as the Velvet Underground—and that song in particular – served as a main reason why Eno began focusing more on music instead of just visual art. The song closes the album well, leaving the listener with a knowledge of darkness, but a reminder that there is light as well.

This album did not resonate with me on the first listen nearly as much as his first few solo albums did, most likely because I prefer his art rock. But, after a couple listens, I found the cohesiveness and themes brought up throughout the album to be extremely moving. It is a tough album to crack, unlike his other, more simple, ambient works, but the power behind the words and sounds is undoubtedly worth understanding.