Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book Review: 33 1/3 #67 Brian Eno - Another Green World

Brian Eno's Another Green World is probably not the easiest album to write about, especially for 100 pages. There's a certain quality to the record--a dense mystique, an obtuse indirectness--that keeps the album from easily succumbing to words. At least words as music critics and scholars like to use them. One of the more interesting bits of trivia Geeta Dayal unearths in her 33 1/3 book on the classic Eno album concerns Eno's use of song titles and often times lyrics not as coded transfers of ideas, but as evocative tonal cues--in other words, Eno didn't have much to say, but he had plenty that he wanted his audience to intuit, perceive or feel. This bit of insight into Eno's creative process is particularly emblematic of both Dayal's successes and missed opportunities in her Another Green World volume--on the one hand, Dayal provides buckets full of insight into Eno's creative process while situating the album within the context of Eno's career; on the other hand, despite Dayal's explorations of Eno's unconventional and surprising-for-anyone-but-Eno methods, there's a certain air of boredom pervading the book's second half, as if the author was ecstatic to write the book but ran out of ideas too quickly.

To be fair, approximately the first half of Dayal's book ranks among the finest writing in the 33 1/3 series. Dayal deftly navigates readers through Eno's early career while introducing us to Eno's creativity flash cards, and relating a number of awe-inspiring anecdotes from the musician's art school days. This first half of Dayal's book is vital and engaging because of the way it approaches Another Green World through the lens of Eno's creative process. Up until somewhere around chapter seven, Dayal has a clear thesis and purpose in her exploration of Eno's work. Then, as happens with many 33 1/3 books, the analysis veers into an unnecessary and somewhat tedious track-by-track walk-through of the featured album. The problem with such sections in otherwise wonderful and interesting books, is that they stop reading like explorations of great albums, and begin looking like slightly glorified liner notes--I don't care that "'Sky Saw' incorporates Jones' fretless bass and Phil Collins' drumming, a searing viola solo by John Cale, additional bass guitar by Paul Rudolph, and various effects by Eno" (Dayal 60). If I wanted to know these things, I could look them up. This kind of information dumping comes across as, at best, filler and, at worst, a stall tactic trying to fill up the white space until the end of the book. This section is also laced with, for the most part, overly vague, uninteresting quotes about the recording process from people who were there. Here's one of Dayal's quotes from Jones:

He's taken that rhythm track and put all this stuff on top of it, and made it into a really strong piece of music. It was really interesting how he initiated the tune; he could have gone a million different ways with an introduction like that. (Dayal 60)

In other words, Eno produced the track...the way that producers generally produce tracks, by putting "stuff" on top of a rhythm track and, as long as the producer is pretty good, making a "strong piece of music." Somehow, the song-by-song analysis section, while brief, kills the momentum of the book's second half by making the album's creation, that had previously been described by the author as fun and daring, sound like an utter bore. The book closes with some more interesting context, tracing a line out through Discreet Music, but it never matches the intrigue of the books first fifty pages.

Now, to be clear, I really hate to rag on Dayal's book more than I've critiqued other 33 1/3 books in other reviews, because the flaws in her approach are quite common to the series, and the first half of her book ranks among the best writing I've encountered in the entire series. Perhaps the series wasn't designed to be read how I'm reading it (one after another, out of a mix of intellectual curiosity and fandom rather than one or the other), or maybe I've just read too many and I'm getting better at picking up on patterns that others don't notice. Whichever it is, the convention of walking through an album track-by-track rarely works unless its being done with a very specific goal in mind. Too often, interesting titles in the series devolve from focused explorations of an album's historical or social context into a hodge-podge of trivia and minutiae that is barely interesting. I love this series of books--shit, I've read 32 of them, and keep a pile of 2-3 new ones stocked and ready at all times--but let's hope that, as they continue to grow into this new decade, the conventions shift a little and we get more books as wonderfully engaging, unique and interesting as "Bee Thousand," "69 Love Songs," and "Live at the Apollo," and a bit less of the books that just sort of go through the motions.

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