On Second Thought: Brian Eno – Drums Between the Bells (2011)

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I initially dismissed this, almost out of hand: There’s a reason people haven’t been rocking Robert Frost all this time. But after putting the album away for a while, Brian Eno’s poetry-driven Drums Between Bells began to grow on me.

A little.

Eno, who’s made important contributions as a sideman and producer to the music of U2, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Coldplay and Roxy Music, has constructed a solo career with just as much varietal intrigue. Along the way, he’s dabbled in everything from prog-jazz (1992’s Nerve Net) to chill-pill ambiance (1975’s Discreet Music) to these instamatic little set pieces (last year’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea). You’ll find all of those impulses inside this new recording, along with one thing more: Words. Lots of them.

While that may seem like a rudimentary thing on most records, it’s not for Eno — who only returned to lyrics with 2005’s Another Day on Earth. Prior to that, he was perhaps best known for a series of ambient (and lyric-less) works dating back to the 1970s, a period that included the capstone Ambient 1: Music for Airports in 1978.

Here, Eno matches tones and moods with a series of poems by collaborator Rick Holland, giving Drums Between The Bells a whipsawing variation from one track to the next. Shivering ambient breezes? Check. Club-rattling beats? Sure. Riffy guitar dreamscapes? At times. When I returned to the record, I found this constant gearshifting — from deeply funky to somnambulist noodling, from kind of brash to kind of a bummer — made for an interesting journey.

Of course, little to any of this is particularly new for Eno, a composer who either created or helped popularize so many of these contemporary electronic sounds, but it gives the project a consistent propulsion.

That brings us to the poetry, as read by an array of guests. I can hear now that there are times, though still not as many as I would like, where the concept works: Eno’s reading on the opening “Bless This Space,” presented against a backdrop of small electrical explosions, approaches the off-beat angularity of the David Byrne collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts from 1981. Of course, then there are times when the marriage of line and texture is a bit too on the nose: “Fierce Aisles of Light,” for instance, sounds like it would be about a train, and what do you know — the music sounds like that, too.

I’ve grown to appreciate the very tender interplay between words and song on the Laurie Anderson-ish “The Real,” as Elisha Mudley reads a philosophical passage on the nature of reality — even if, elsewhere, Holland’s contributions prove to be an unconquerable distraction. I can’t, even now, completely dismiss this cold, rather bland dystopia permeating the work, something even Eno’s patented scattershot rhythms and echoing piano arpeggios can’t dress up.

That said, the guitar-driven “Pour It Out” brushes up against the successes Eno has had in working with King Crimson founder Robert Fripp over the years. “Glitch” is this itchy, atonal wonder. That doesn’t, of course, excuse the weird little reggae pastiche Eno creates for the track “Dow.” Or that he actually includes 58 seconds of silence on a track called, ahem, “Silence,” recalling John Lennon’s similar “Nutopian International Anthem” from 1973’s Mind Games — yet forgetting just how annoyingly pedantic it was, even back then.

Thing is, it’s not like Eno doesn’t know what to do with words. After all, he’s had success with them before, as on 1977’s Before and After Science — a work of dreamlike, curatorial intensity. But the words were sung back then, and the album possessed a tighter musical focus.

That criticism might sound rather mundane now to the musical adventurer in Eno — been there, done that, right? — but it would have made Drums Between the Bells a far better effort.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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