A few weeks back, while grappling with the earthshattering business of a new Coldplay album, I kicked off a discussion about Brian Eno’s recent track record. I was confounded by his taste for generally working with giant and, to my ears, fundamentally quite conservative bands. After literally decades of hitching his wagon to the likes of Coldplay, U2 and, lest we forget, James, I found it fascinating that Eno still retained a profound avant-garde cachet. Have we been letting him get away with a lot of mediocre music, just because he talks cleverly about it?
Eno, I suspect, finds some kind of experimental gratification in the way he approaches the process of making a record, rather than the way it actually sounds when it’s finished: convenient when you’re Guy Hands and need a Coldplay album to sell an eight-figure digit worldwide, but perhaps less important for a cloistered music hack and blogger who treasures the memory of Eno as an innovator, rather than a facilitator.
The reunion with his old aesthetic twin, David Byrne, inevitably smells a lot more promising. And reading the way Eno talks about “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today” in the press release, it all looks very alluring, with him musing on the potential of gospel music as “a music of surrender, and the surrendering rather than the worshipping was the part that interested me.”
Eno describes the album as “something like electronic gospel”, which should immediately alert you to the fact that we’re not in for a rerun of “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts”. This one isn’t about using religious samples for subversive ends, it’s about tapping into a faith-powered musical tradition. So Byrne muses, in a calm and familiarly quizzical way, about coming to terms with age, mortality and an accelerating world, while Eno packs the background with his slightly dated array of electronic trickery.
It is, to be honest, a lot better than this makes it sound. Again, there’s precious little that could comfortably be described as radical: a fair few of Eno’s purportedly experimental soundscapes could have sat happily on some mid-‘90s armchair electronica record, there’s a fair whiff of latterday Radiohead here and there (notably on “I Feel My Stuff”), and I keep thinking of REM’s “Up” as a comparison, wherein traditional songcraft is mildly subverted by some artful electronic trim. “Poor Boy” is frenetic and jittery in a way which vaguely recalls some of the prickly areas of “Bush Of Ghosts”, but it comes across as rather strained, oddly pedestrian.
Perhaps it’s better to focus on Byrne rather than Eno, who doesn’t come saddled with quite such oppressive expectations. We’re told that Eno passed over a bunch of musical ideas to Byrne, for him to work into songs, and he’s done a generally impressive job. Essentially, “Everything That Happens” is an enormously pleasanr, gospel-tinged pop record, with some genteel nods towards funk. “Strange Overtones” is available as a free download here, and is a good indication of Byrne’s form: writing the most graceful and immediate songs he’s done in years; making a strength out of the mournful, encroaching frailty of his voice.
That last point really comes to the fore on “The Lighthouse”, the last track and the one that best plays to Eno and Byrne’s talents. Byrne sings beautifully, as if in a lucid dream, but it’s the way that Eno’s dreamlike music complements it – faintly echoing “Another Green World”, perhaps – that finds the two working most harmoniously. A very nice album, but if it had featured ten more songs of the calibre of “The Lighthouse”, we might just be talking about another great one.