In the liner notes to his seminal ambient masterwork, 1978's Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Brian Eno wrote, "Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." It's been three decades since that artistic mission statement, but Eno's words still ring controversial. What is background music? Are melody and rhythm essential ingredients in music? Can a good song put you to sleep?
Ever since his earliest years, adding his spacey synth treatments to Roxy Music's polarizing art rock, Eno's been a musical provocateur, pushing listeners to question traditions and extend the boundaries of what constitutes pop music. But in 2012, Eno's influence on mainstream culture has never been more massive. It's been seven years since his last solo album, the divisive Another Day on Earth; that album, a conscious attempt at traditional songwriting, with vocals and verse-chorus arrangements, received some of the coldest reviews of Eno's career. But he's bounced back marvelously, producing albums for U2 and Coldplay and collaborating with old pal/former Talking Head David Byrne on the splendid Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008).
But for all his successes in the world of traditional songwriting, Eno will probably always be known as the godfather of ambient music—and the timing feels right for Eno to embrace his ambient roots. The 76-minute Lux, his first solo release for Warp Records, isn't an ambient-pop hybrid—and it's a far cry from easy listening. Lux, which was originally composed to accompany an art installation, carries on in the sonic vein of Eno's earliest ambient excursions, like Music for Airports and Discreet Music. The new disc relies on a handful of minimal drones and melodic fragments, using the cold instrumentation like colors in a Jackson Pollock painting, all thrown together on the canvas seemingly at random, allowing the sounds to weave into chaotic but lovely patterns. The individual tones are recorded with glowing studio warmth: hovering violins, ominous piano notes, vague synthesizers rising like ocean mist, what sounds like someone's wet finger on the rim of a wine glass. But after spending half an hour or so in Eno's universe, the elements start meshing together into an abstract jigsaw puzzle.
Lux is divided into four movements, which seems ridiculous at first glance, given that the entire album is made up of the same group of instruments playing the same handful of notes. But it's the juxtaposition of those patterns—the random synchronicities—that give the album a small but palpable gust of momentum. And upon further examination, Eno's organization starts to make sense. Though the variations in mood are subtle, the differences are there. The first movement is bright and airy, built on rich piano notes that drift by like storm clouds; the second movement is guitar-heavy, driven by flickering e-bow notes that resemble decaying cellphone vibrations.
Each movement fades out before bubbling back to the surface—even if you stay awake for the entire 76 minutes, it's likely you won't notice where one starts and another ends. After awhile, it's easy to question why you're listening at all. Your favorite moment won't be a melodic pattern or a rhythm but a tone or a texture. My personal favorite moment arrives around the 30-minute mark. Most of the textures have faded quietly, leaving a wall of buzzing guitar pings and decaying string noise. Lux isn't an album you listen to; it's an album you feel, like a wool sweater or a leather couch.
How do you criticize this stuff? Where do you begin? You probably don't need this review to tell you whether or not you're cool with 76 minutes of melody-free drone. Lux is clearly the work of an artist with a particular vision, even if the vision is to relinquish control to the chaos of loops and layers. Unlike, say, Music for Airports, which is built on gorgeous melodic patterns, Lux simply drifts aimlessly. That doesn't necessarily make it any less effective as an absorbing listen, but it certainly affects its replay value.
Would Lux be more effective if it lasted 30 minutes instead of 76? Probably—or at least, it would be easier to digest, and easier to recall fondly. But that doesn't seem to be Eno's point—in a way, it's telling that Lux so clearly pushes the limits of the CD running length. This is music that seems to neither begin nor end but simply exist. These sounds could easily drift on for hours, for days, for years—mixing and criss-crossing and rising and falling, until you choose to stop listening.