BRIAN ENO: TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN (BY STRATEGY) (1974)
1) Burning Airlines Give You So Much More; 2) Back In Judy's Jungle; 3) The Fat Lady Of Limbourg; 4) Mother Whale Eyeless; 5) The Great Pretender; 6) Third Uncle; 7) Put A Straw Under Baby; 8) The True Wheel; 9) China My China; 10) Taking Tiger Mountain.
The title of the album, borrowed from one of the eight «model operas» produced for the needs of the Cultural Revolution in China, seems to hint at some sort of «strategic design» for the album, but it will take a lot of analysis and research to uncover the design in question — or, for that matter, any actual Chinese influence: even a song called ʽChina My Chinaʼ shows no signs of Eno's preoccupation with any Far Eastern motives. Eno was, however, much interested in Oriental philosophy and mysticism, and it is said that the process of creating this album involved the usage of «Oblique Strategies», a set of printed cards with cryptic remarks like «Honour thy error as a hidden intention» or «Work at a different speed» that was largely influenced by the I Ching (one wonders why they didn't just go ahead and use the I itself).
The one thing that does get noticed is that the album is much more quiet, leisurely paced, and stripped of vocal and instrumental «hooliganry» that was all over Here Come The Warm Jets. It is by no means «ambient» or «becalmed» (only the final title track approaches true serenity), but it feels much more «planned», evenly paced and well-measured, as if there was, indeed, some imaginary chessboard upon which the songs were strategically arranged into a well-fitting configuration. The tempos are mostly similar (slow to mid-tempo), with only one jarring exception that will be discussed later; the vocals are natural, easy-coming, and mostly unaffected; the hooks are laid out in strictly disciplined geometric patterns; and the lyrics, though largely nonsensical, create the illusion that we are being communicated something important, in impenetrable code: "The fat lady of Limbourg / Looked at the samples that we sent / And furrowed her brow... Her sense of taste is such that she'll distinguish with her tongue / The subtleties a spectrograph would miss / And announce her decision / While demanding her reward / The jellyfish kiss".
So is this just one of these «put-on» albums — something that aspires to deep meaning but is in reality an empty shell? By no means. Taking Tiger Mountain is a terrifically successful exercise in «intellectual spirituality» — an attempt to make a rule-based mix of intentional strategy and fateful chance, where songs would be carefully crafted and guided by spontaneous decisions at the same time: think Blonde On Blonde with a mathematically precise mind behind all the crazy ruckus. Actually, do think so — doesn't ʽBack In Judy's Jungleʼ give the impression of a much more tightly disciplined ʽRainy Day Womenʼ?
On the whole, the album is decidedly less «fun» than Warm Jets, but also on the whole, it is darker and more mysterious. The first two songs are somewhat lulling and friendly — ʽBurning Airlines Give You So Much Moreʼ does sound like a charming, leisurely bit of publicity (for a burning airline, that is), and the aforementioned ʽJudy's Jungleʼ is a merry-go-round that is only slightly offset with a slithering, nasty guitar tone (is that Eno playing his «snake guitar»?). But beginning with ʽFat Lady Of Limbourgʼ, the record assumes a somber tone that is rarely abandoned (only ʽPut A Straw Under Babyʼ, another lighthearted waltz, temporarily lets some sunlight through the clouds), although «somber» does not equal «depressing» or «threatening». Rather, these tracks weave together a tapestry in which some professional alchemist is busy brewing up green bubbly potions in his tower — with just a tinge of black magic, but it's not as if it's being used for particularly sinister purposes. More out of curiosity.
The album particularly comes to a boil (sorry for another cauldron reference) on ʽThe Great Pretenderʼ, whose clattering bass pattern does sound related to a (not very frightening) horror movie, and then on ʽThird Uncleʼ, the fastest, busiest track on the album that certain superficial critics used to call an «early precursor to punk», even if it would be harder to find someone more removed from the quintessential punk mindset than Eno — this here is just another strategy of his, where maybe they just pulled out that card that read «Work at a different speed», so they sped it up, and Manzanera thought it adequate to play a howling, «angry» guitar solo, and the result is just another of Eno's little mysteries, maybe one that takes you on a wild, out-of-breath chase through a thick bamboo jungle.
I must confess, though, that the «strategic layout» of the album has always seemed a bit too calculated for me — out of Eno's «big four», Taking Tiger Mountain is the one that has the least amount of pure soul, in fact, «soul» does not properly emerge until the serene conclusion of the title track. There is no complaining over the fact that the entire album sounds like one huge musical conundrum — such was the artist's intention, no less, and this is what makes it unique, and indeed, it may be awesome fun listening and re-listening to these songs, trying to make wild (and most probably wrong) guesses about its internal logic just like a crazed-out Sinologist would make wild guesses about the I Ching. But I would not recommend it as a representative introduction to Eno's «pop period», because it would give you the wrong impression of «Eno the alchemist» instead of the correct one — «Eno the trickster with a heart of gold», which you can get from any of the other three classics.
Nevertheless, it must also be stated that the record sounds more original and individualistic than Warm Jets — this time around, it is much more difficult to reduce it to the sum of its influences; I guess we have to thank the «Oblique Strategies» for that, as well as the active presence of Phil Manzanera and Robert Wyatt, neither of whom were interested in imitating anybody else. In any case, this is absolutely essential listening — haunting, intriguing, literate, creative, and totally open to whatever interpretation your own mind comes up with for it. Thumbs up.