Album Analysis | Brian Eno - Another Green World
An album as colorful as its artwork and song titles suggest, Brian Eno's third studio album Another Green World is a rich and beautiful masterpiece that still sounds fresh 44 years later.
Coming out of St. Joseph's College and the Winchester School of Art, Brian Eno was a young man of many ideas and no formal training or education in music. Studying art and design, he became intrigued by the synthesizer and tape recorder and began pursuing ideas and theories in music that experimented and differed from the norm. Inspired by a lecture from The Who's Pete Townshend, he realized that he could still make music even with no previous education or training in music. In the late '60s, he was experimenting with tape recorders and throwing tennis balls against pianos. A decade later, he had established himself as arguably the decade's most innovative and expansive artist.
Eno spent much of the early '70s pioneering glam rock with his synthesizer, his tape machine, and his unique ability to alter the sound of instruments through his "treatments". He created futuristic and nocturnal atmospheres in Roxy Music's artsy glam pop, becoming a key artistic force in their first two records. 1974's solo records Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) reinvented glam rock with a heavier influence of the synthesizer, and were two of the earliest rock albums to be driven by electronics. His abstract and confusing lyricism tied in with rich melodies and off-kilter rhythms echoed the sounds of Roxy Music, but did more to predict the rise of new wave and punk rock than anything else. And although he was critically successful and a vital figure in the art-rock scene, he knew that he could do more than just make rock music, but the ideas represented in his definitive work, Another Green World, hadn't quite sparked yet.
A taxi accident in the early weeks of '75 left Eno lying in a hospital bed, putting a temporary halt to his musical ambitions. While bed-ridden and restricted, one of his friends gave him a harp record to pass the time. The only problem was that the stereo barely worked, and the record was thus played at a very low volume. He was unable to get up and increase the volume, so he sat there listening to the rain batter against the walls as the record was ever-so-slightly audible. While it might sound mentally straining, it proved to be a turning point in Eno's life, presenting a new perspective on how to understand music. In the liner notes for Discreet Music, Eno writes,
"This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music—as part of the ambiance of the environment just as the color of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambiance"
Even before his accident, his interest in electronic and experimental music was evident, albeit not fully expressed. If his pre-Roxy days can prove anything, it's that he was always into the art of improvisation, testing often-nonsensical musical theories and innovating with what he had available. In 1973, he worked with Robert Fripp, King Crimson's guitarist, on No Pussyfooting, an experimental and instrumental project that emphasized Fripp's guitar playing over endless tape loops from Eno. As an experimental project that discarded the idea of a song structure and form, it was a confusing release, but laid the ground for long, drawn-out and free compositions that had a distinct tone and feel to them that no type of rock music could replicate. Even on his first two solo albums, he had some extremely atmospheric, melodic, but formless compositions, such as "On Some Faraway Beach", "Here Come the Warm Jets" (which sounds like shoegaze, only decades before shoegaze existed), and "Taking Tiger Mountain", which dealt with making organic-sounding music based almost entirely on electronics.
Two months before stepping into the studio to record Another Green World, he recorded a thirty-minute minimalist piece titled "Discreet Music" that explored different soundscapes over a long period of time, without any structure or restraints. The album Discreet Music was released two months after Another Green World, realized with a B-side that came was recorded shortly before the album's release, but it laid the groundwork for an instrumental and free-form work of art that hadn't been fully explored before. Another Green World was an important stepping stone in Eno's realization and creation of ambient music, but more importantly serves as the perfect marriage between instrumental and experimental soundscapes and the melodies and sweetness of pop music.
In her outstanding book covering Another Green World, part of the 33 1/3 series, Geeta Dayal explains that:
"The music on Another Green World sounds practically meditative—all delicately-textured stillness, introspection and calm repose—but the album itself was an experiment fueled by adrenaline, panic, and pure faith"
When Brian began recording the album in July 1975, he intended for it to be an experiment and emphasized the process over the planning. His first week in Island Studios resulted in nothing. To overcome this bout of writer's block, he and Peter Schmidt, a highly influential visual artist, worked to create the "Oblique Strategies", a series of cards and mental exercises to engage lateral thinking and overcome previous limitations. Building off of the abstract principles and experiments that guided all his previous projects and taking the lessons from his cards, he began experimenting heavily in the studios with all things musical and non-musical. In a mere two months, he birthed Another Green World, a milestone in art that doesn't sound a bit dated.
Some of the original Oblique Strategies
Another Green World stands out from other electronic and ambient albums, both from its time and in the future, by being so eclectic and organic. Throughout the album's 14 tracks and in a scant 40 minutes, Another Green World travels through many different soundscapes, moods, and atmospheres, and shows a wild and unabashed array of different influences. Each song has a unique personality and atmosphere ingrained in it, the melodies are as vibrant and rich as ever, and no song runs on for too long. Some songs are more conventional and structured, and others are haunting, eerie, and formless instrumentals. It's an album that sounds like its title, because as soon as the needle drops and the main synths of "Sky Saw" hit, Eno propels the listener into another world far removed from conventions and limitations. Sometimes it feels like 40 minutes isn't enough time, but the album is shockingly consistent in its creative ideas.
One interpretation of this album is that each song serves as its own soundtrack to a nonexistent, silent film. Each of the record's 14 tracks has its own unique and indispensable personality and atmosphere that tells of a certain story or theme using the studio's full capabilities. "St. Elmo's Fire" brings up images of a group of people wandering through a desert late at night during a storm, as Fripp was asked to improvise a lightning-fast guitar solo that sounded like an electrical charge. "I'll Come Running" could serve as a soundtrack for a snippet of a young and shy man trying to fall in love, with its elegant piano and whirling guitar (also courtesy of Fripp). "The Big Ship", one of Eno's most famous compositions, is an intensely personal yet deadpan array of synthesizers and euphoria, one that sounds like an ascension into Heaven or somewhere surreal. One of Eno's most overlooked instrumental pieces, "Zawinul/Lava", hones in on Satie and Reich's minimalism, but creates a terrifying and suspenseful atmosphere that keeps growing throughout the song, making it sound like a peaceful sleep transforming into a livid nightmare over the course of a night. "Sombre Reptiles" is based off steady and tribal-sounding percussion with guitars and keyboards bouncing around, and its tempo and guitar tone sound like a frantic escape through a forest or jungle, while the following "Little Fishes" reins in bare psychedelia using only a piano and a distant organ.
If Another Green World isn't a soundtrack, then perhaps the album is a mere canvas for Eno. After all, he was a student of fine art and was a visual artist as well as a sound artist. Analogies of him "painting with sound" are fairly accurate, and given how each song here is unique in its sound and mood, yet always short and sweet, this album could be a simple collection of organic and sonic paintings, however pretentious it may sound. The rich and beautiful album cover, a part of Tom Phillip's "After Raphael", is one warning sign, but even the lush song titles with constant references to nature (islands, fires, reptiles, lava, fishes, etc.) are strong hints as well. In the album credits, his vibrant descriptions of instruments is very interesting. From the "Peruvian Percussion" on "Sombre Reptiles", "Desert Guitars" on "St. Elmo's Fire", "Uncertain Piano" on "Golden Hours", and "Snake Guitar" on "Sky Saw", he brings these soundscapes to life in a uniquely incredible way.
Open to countless interpretations, or merely just a pleasant album to listen to, Another Green World is the realization of Eno at his creative peak. In a miracle, the album echoes his entire career - all the way back from his experiments with tennis balls and water to "Discreet Music" - and everything surrounding him at the time. The work of guest musicians, whether session musicians like Percy Jones or big-league artists like Phil Collins and Fripp, was important in making the album sound more alive and organic, and less like the work of an isolated painter. This is an album that shows restraint in its run-times, but offers a limitless journey into music that had rarely explored before, and has yet to be successfully replicated. His concept of "sketches" would inspire his work on later projects, notably David Bowie's Low, but this sounds much more adequate and fulfilled than anything else he's worked on. With the immaculate production and sheer creative genius involved, Another Green World is a brilliant and engaging project that's as colorful as it is deadpan, and is without a doubt one of the greatest pieces of art of all time.
Listen to Another Green World on Spotify here.