(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #15 – released December 1977. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 11/6/2014.)
Track listing: No One Receiving / Backwater / Kurt’s Rejoinder / Energy Fools The Magician / King’s Lead Hat / Here He Comes / Julie With… / By This River / Through Hollow Lands (for Harold Budd) / Spider And I
To this day, Before And After Science has a reputation as Brian Eno’s last rock album, or at least his final one as a performer before he began primarily making ambient music. That he would go on to produce now-classic popular albums for the likes of Talking Heads, U2, Coldplay and many others, plus release collaborative pop albums under his own name with both David Byrne and John Cale somewhat refutes this claim. On occasion, he’s even composed a vocal track or two of his own (“This” and “How Many Words”, both on 2005’s Another Day On Earth), subtly calling back to his earlier persona as a quirk-pop pioneer. Still, although the record was cobbled together from two years of various recording sessions, it is very nearly Eno’s most accomplished and complete album. It even anticipates the path his solo career would take by way of its sequencing, which deliberately, gradually shifts from giddy, proto-New Wave towards becalmed, meditative tone poems.
At this album’s release in late 1977 (it arrived in the U.S. the following spring), Eno was undergoing a critical resurgence, particularly for those who dismissed him as a prog-rock dinosaur or an experimental egghead. He had just produced Low and “Heroes”, the first two albums of David Bowie’s well-received “Berlin” trilogy, which rehabilitated Bowie’s hip quotient, and by association, his own as well. Not that this translated into any commercial success for Before And After Science—it sold as poorly as his previous solo work—but it underlined the notion that Eno, like the most innovative and enduring musicians of his era (Bowie among them) welcomed growth and change. Even the album’s stark cover photo presents a figure far different from the flamboyant alien presence that graced Here Come The Warm Jets four years before. The music, while recognizably Eno, has also changed/evolved: following the mostly instrumental Another Green World (and his entirely instrumental first ambient album, Discreet Music), all but two tracks have vocals, and any hint of the glam-rock he made his name on has evaporated.
What’s replaced it, at least on the album’s first half, is a little harder to pinpoint, exactly. The opener, “No One Receiving” is possibly the funkiest number Eno ever put his name on. It fuses a mechanical-sounding rhythm (mostly played on real instruments, most notably Phil Collins (!) on drums) with almost a James Brown-like sensibility, minus the horns but with relentless rhythm guitar and bass riffs intact. As with “Sky Saw”, the first track on Another Green World (which Collins also played on), weird synth noises dart in and out of the mix, but they inhabit this song more organically and never threaten to overwhelm the sturdy foundation underneath. It’s a beguiling, cold but kinetic song that sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does.
Effortlessly tuneful and overtly gleeful, “Backwater”, with its handclaps and Elton-like banging piano is childlike and catchy enough for an episode of The Muppets (fitting since Eno often sings like one) but also eccentric to a degree that you’d still have a tough time picturing an alternate-universe, household-name Eno appearing on the show (sample lyric: “But if you study the logistics and heuristics of the mystics / You will find that their minds rarely move in a line.”). “Kurt’s Rejoinder” ups the tempo even further, skittering along with Morse code-like piano noises, percussion that resembles Fred Flintstone furiously driving his stone-age car with his feet, and words flying by at breakneck speed until they resemble the ramblings of a demented square dance caller (“Do the do-si-do, do the mirror man / Do the Boston crab, do the allemande,”) at the outro.
“Energy Fools The Magician” is one of Eno’s most mysterious and evocative song titles, rendered even more so by being the album’s first instrumental. Also the first track that hints back to Another Green World—it could be the more grounded twin of that record’s “Over Fire Island”, only with a dominant synth melody. It’s darkly beautiful, but really less of a song than a link to “King’s Lead Hat”, which concludes the album’s first half. A cheeky, herky-jerky Talking Heads pastiche that Eno had written for the band (notice the title’s anagram), it now plays like a clairvoyant compendium of quirky New Wave pop–you can hear in it seeds for still-to-come recordings from XTC, The B-52’s and Devo (Eno would produce the latter’s debut the following year), not to mention stuff a half-decade away (hello, Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science”!) In hindsight, it still puzzles that this ridiculously catchy single never became a hit (or that contemporary outlets like Sirius XM’s “First Wave” channel ignore it).
These first five songs are as sharp an album side as anything Eno had previously done; on Before And After Science’s second half, he nearly outdoes himself. After the inspired madness of “King’s Lead Hat”, “Here He Comes” is an about-face transition, albeit a remarkably smooth one. A dreamy midtempo number full of lullabye-like guitar and synth arpeggios and sections of wordless vocals that wash over you like a warm bath, it’s one of Eno’s loveliest and most poignantly sung tunes. Tonally, however, it’s a mere bridge to the rest of the album. Like many of his songs, the six-minute-plus “Julie With…” ever-so-slowly fades in, grasping for consciousness or just trying to stay awake while fending off a gentle, blissful drowsiness. Eventually, the track’s electric piano hook comes into focus and the vocals appear at 1:32. Generally still but gently swaying like a tree branch in the wind, spacious but teeming with careful detail, it places ambient music’s stillness and serenity within a pop song framework (cue the extended, building guitar-and-synth hook that each verse turns on)—it’s a true hybrid, both approachable and coolly enigmatic.
Those last two songs are as lush as the record gets. Thereafter, Eno just subtracts more and more. The quietly mesmerizing “By This River” is mostly piano and voice, repeating the same oriental-like melody over chord changes that color each repetition differently. The lyrics are Zen-like in their simplicity and sung in a matching, plainspoken tone that could be proto-Stephin Merritt. If you listen closely enough, you can hear little bells playing along with the piano melody in the background. “Through Hollow Lands (For Harold Budd)”, the album’s other instrumental, is further minimalist, with a piano, bass and guitar softly eking out a series of notes that tentatively form a melody, while encroaching synths add texture as the song goes on. It’s the track here most blatantly pointing the way towards stuff like Music For Airports, although it feels positively opulent in comparison.
The album closes with “Spider and I”, which fades in to a volume as loud as anything on the first half, but an at even slower tempo than anything else on the second half. Over big, fat, majestic, elongated synth chords, the lyrics, once again, abound with maritime imagery (this could be a cousin of Another Green World’s “The Big Ship”.) You can sense his thorough consideration of each and every word as he sings, “We…sleep in the mornings / we…dream of a ship…that sails…away.” I couldn’t tell you what this song is about; I don’t think that even matters. Many often dismiss the whole ambient genre as “mood music”, but that’s what Eno excels at throughout this album, particularly in its second half. By the final notes, he sounds like a man at peace with himself and with partially leaving pop music behind for bolder, uncharted terrain. If Before And After Science is the culmination of Eno’s dalliance as a solo rock artist, it’s also closest he ever came to finding enlightenment in that guise.
Up next: Alternate paths towards enlightenment.
“King’s Lead Hat”:
“By This River”: