You’ve really got to hand it to Brian Eno, who, now entering his fifth decade as a recording artist, had managed to create a genuine air of excitement in the lead up to his newest album, Small Craft on a Milk Sea. This is partially due to the fact that Small Craft represents a sort of spiritual convergence for experimental electronic music, as this is the first album Eno has released through Warp Records, a label which may very well have never existed if not for Eno and his initial run of course-charting ambient and electronic productions from the decade proceeding from the mid-70s. It’s also to Eno’s credit that the results clearly showcase a reinvigorated and well-considered recording mindset. On the other hand, it’s equally unfortunate that the record at a fundamental level evidences an approach which Eno arguably perfected sometime circa 1978. There’s certainly something to be said for familiarity, particularly for an artist who at this point could evidently subside on Coldplay and U2 production residuals alone, but it ultimately hangs Small Craft in a bit of limbo: while obviously competent and enjoyable to a fault, there’s little to differentiate the record as anything more than wheelhouse 2010 product when it could just as easily have been a pace-keeping early 90s document from an artist whose descendants have clearly built upon the ideas and techniques Eno helped popularize.
With that being said, this is arguably Eno’s best (or at least most interesting) solo album in over a decade. The fact that it is so listenable works as both an asset and to its detriment, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there isn’t at least a tinge of nostalgia working in the album’s favor. The ambient portions of the record—basically the first and last movements—are instantly recognizable as the work of Eno, with slow-rising synth textures and those gently oscillating downtempo accouterments that probably took years to perfect but which now manifests themselves with the click of a mouse. In this mode, Eno continues to hypnotize, which pieces such as the title track and lengthy closer “Late Anthropocene” nicely showcase. It’s also rather fascinating to consider the ways in which Eno contrasts and patterns the record’s handful of sister pieces (“Emerald and Lime”/“Emerald and Stone”, “Complex Heaven”/“Lesser Heaven”), and while these portions of the record play like comfort food ambient, it’s always a peripherally welcome occurrence to hear an artist once again work so competently in his most familiar and beloved mode. Also, the fact that these pieces are only slightly marred by their origins in the train wreck otherwise known as Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” could be thought of as accomplishment enough.
The album’s middle section is where things become a little more dicey. Essentially Eno’s attempt to appropriate—I certainly don’t want to say update—the most prominent ingredients from the golden age of IDM and wedge them into what I can only refer to here as his framework, this stretch of tense, rather heavy beat workouts at the very least reactivate a seemingly dormant area of the man’s more cerebral approaches to electronic composition. The only problem is, by evidence of these tracks, it would seem that Eno stopped listening to modern electronic music sometime after 1998 and Autechre’s LP5. Adding to the disorientation is the fact that Eno apparently instructed his two main collaborators on Small Craft—Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams—to attempt to conjure a sound redolent of the future of music. I’m not even sure where to go from there, but I’d have to assume that the guitar solo that protrudes gaudily from the otherwise terse “Paleosonic” was dated on inception. I guess what sucks most about Small Craft on a Milk Sea is that Eno unexpectedly got our hopes up to a point where that artwork and album title and label switch actually made us forget that the man hasn’t truly been on the cutting edge since the mid-80s. Probably best, then, to try and forget the context and expectations and take the album on its own terms, at which time it should register as a mostly satisfying and occasionally affecting work from an artist who at this point needn’t even reiterate his legendary status. [68/100] [Published 12.03.10]