For the first 6 minutes of The Ship, it seems as though Brian Eno has simply been content to continue on with his work from his ambient classics like Music For Airports. It’s undeniably beautiful; synthesisers ebbing and flowing across as space that feels appropriately like drifting on an ocean. However, at the aforementioned 6-minute mark, a choir of vocoded voices enter the mix, singing vague lyrics about discontentment – “and we are as the undescribed” – and The Ship reveals itself to be much more complex than it originally seems.
In spite of being arguably the most influential rock producer of the last 30 years, Brian Eno’s best work has always been his experimental, ambient records. He pioneered the genre in the 70’s, and has been experimenting within its confines ever since. The Ship functions as something of a song cycle, reportedly inspired by the sinking of the Titanic, which Eno perceives as a moment of Tower of Babel-esque hubris with regards to mankind underestimating nature. The first track – The Ship – seems somewhat contrary to this, remaining relaxed and surreal throughout its 20 minute runtime. It is consistently enchanting, in spite of its length, and reminds one that Eno’s skill with ambience and drones is unparalleled. However, it simply shows itself to be the calm before the much-more-dramatic storm.
Fickle Sun (I) is the thematic centrepiece of the album, opening with serene chimes, before becoming consumed in a wash of brooding synth bass and strings. In its 7th minute, the track explodes into booming brass that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Hans Zimmer composition, and the effect is stirring. Since Eno has spent almost half-an-hour building to this climactic point, he manages to focus all of the album’s energy into about a minute of incredible music. The obvious downside to this is that it only comes halfway through the actual album, leading the rest of the record to feel somewhat like an extended comedown. The second half of Fickle Sun (I) in particular, is much too drawn out, and wears on the listener.
The final two tracks function almost as bonus tracks. Fickle Sun (II) The Hour Is Thin is a spoken word piece performed to piano, but the words themselves (apparently created by a Markov chain generator) feel cluttered and poorly phrased – “I was a hard copy version”. The final track is a lushly arranged cover of The Velvet Underground’s I’m Set Free. It is somewhat more lightweight than the rest of the album, but it’s a pleasant note on which to end. Throughout The Ship, Eno experiments with form in pursuit of a concept, and whilst he is not always successful, his ambition is admirable.