Brian Eno – Eno Box II: Vocals (1999)

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It might be best to take Brian Eno — the electronic mastermind behind some of the most important modern rock albums by the likes of David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2 — in smaller doses than this three-disc set allows.

A thinker, a tinkerer, he’s always risked much — not least of which was failure.

Still, swallowed whole, “Eno Box II: Vocals” presents a handy guide to map Brian Eno’s metamorphosis from little-known sideman (he played synthesizer briefly in the 1970s with the art rock band Roxy Music) to mixer-slash-muse for the stars. That it focuses on songs with lyrics also makes this set far more accessible than the ambient and ambitious challenges of triumphs like “Music for Airports.”

That said, disc one is wildly divergent. As Eno struggles to find his voice, he tries inventive synth-driven pieces like “Here Comes the Warm Jets” (which hints at those free-form joys to come), then the riffy, guitar-heavy “Seven Deadly Finns.”

That’s why the next two discs point more definitively to where his quickly evolving vision would go. The music bed is funky, yet musically diverse. Songs like “Skysaw” are, it’s clear now, seedlings from which many-limbed innovations would grow.

By the time Eno produces 1977’s “King’s Lead Hat,” we have the prescription for a band called the Talking Heads, including the herky-jerky vocal, bone-deep groove and intelligent hook.

Eno’s prescient work in ambient music, which arguably spawned an entire format, is represented on tracks like “In Dark Trees” (embedded below) and successive tunes from his “Before and After Science” release.

“R.A.F.,” from the final disc, is revelatory. Energized, even turgid, it suggests to me the toughness he would bring to work with U2 later. Then, somehow, that’s topped by three consecutive tracks from Eno’s legend-making collaboration with the Heads’ David Byrne, “My Life in the Bush with Ghosts.” Their squelchy epiphanies would eventually become too many to mention, from their duo recording of “The Jezebel Spirit” (heard here) to titanic grooves like “Crosseyed and Painless” from Byrne and his band.

Next on “Eno Box II: Vocals,” which is presented chronologically, are two from 1992’s “Nerve Net,” a record I always thought of as a kind of absolution for dance music. Eno takes a genre that tends to consume itself and constructs tunes that are thoughtful, yet very unselfconscious.

Also of note: Collaborations on discs two and three with the Velvet Underground’s John Cale and plenty of never-before-heard items from the vault.

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