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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Brian Eno (w. David Byrne): My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts

BRIAN ENO: MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS (w. David Byrne) (1981)

1) America Is Waiting; 2) Mea Culpa; 3) Regiment; 4) Help Me Somebody; 5) The Jezebel Spirit; 6) Very, Very Hungry; 7) Moonlight In Glory; 8) The Carrier; 9) A Secret Life; 10) Come With Us; 11) Mountain Of Needles.

This album is frequently hailed as a milestone in the history of sampling — the first ever LP to employ sampling techniques on a regular basis, as a fundamental element of the music, as oppo­sed to sporadic earlier experiments by other people; all the more fascinating from our modern perspective in that everything here was still recorded on analogue equipment, and apparently it took a lot of fuss to synchronize the samples with the beats (but must have been fun, though). But as nice as it is to know that, I don't really give a damn: use of samples is not a blessing per se, no matter how many mediocre hip-hop artists might think so, and unless it serves some bigger pur­pose than «coolness», it's just an additional layer of sound.

Actually, from that perspective My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is not really an Eno album, and should probably be discussed under «David Byrne» — but we will take the easy way out and decide that, since it is credited to «Brian Eno — David Byrne» and not vice versa, Brian is recog­nized as senior leading partner (or, at least, as someone whose first name starts with a B rather than a D). In reality, though, the majority of the instrumental tracks here sound very, very close to the Talking Heads sound of Remain In Light — hardly surprising, since they were actually re­corded in between Eno's work with the band on Fear Of Music and Remain In Light itself; it is only because of additional legal problems with getting permission to use all the samples that the release of the record was delayed, by which time Remain In Light had already come out and changed the face of popular music.

That said, things wouldn't change much if the release order were reversed, because My Life is by no means a «popular» album — its tracks, though definitely musical and even danceable, relay on weird samples for vocal content, and have nothing that would even vaguely resemble a singalong chorus. The samples themselves are usually of two varieties: either Near Eastern singers or Ame­rican radio evangelists, exorcists, and politicians — which might be understood as a symbolic indication that the spiritual values of traditional and (post-)industrial societies are not as far removed from each other as could be thought. Or maybe Eno just randomly selected stuff that appealed to him on a (sub-)sonic level, and then left it open for anybody's interpretation. In any case, the final product was obviously and arrogantly «bizarre», and the impression was only further magnified with its title (taken from a 1954 novel by Amos Tutuola about the adventures of a West African boy that neither of the artists had even read) and its abstract painting on the front sleeve (which was actually taken from a video monitor, so that's probably the most digital part of the whole thing).

But it is a «visionary» kind of bizarre, all right, and I just can't see any fan of Remain In Light remaining in the darkness concerning this record, which really looks a bit like its older, slightly less gifted, but maybe even more eccentric brother. Eno used to refer to it as a «psychedelic visi­on of Africa», yet I think he was kind of selling his own product short: African rhythms and Afri­can instrumentation play as big a part in this as they did on Remain In Light, but the record itself is not about Africa as such — and certainly you wouldn't get that impression based on the very first track, whose main sample goes "America is waiting for a message of some sort or another". With all these evangelists, exorcists, and radio hosts walking all over the funky rhythms, My Life is the busiest album to have ever been released with Eno's name on it — a staggering contrast with all these hush-hush ambient records — and if it is a psychedelic vision of anything, it is more likely a psychedelic allegory for life on the streets of a big modern city, where African rhythms and polyrhythms just illustrate the general hustle and bustle. In fact, you could choose a good half, if not more, of these tracks to accompany some mad police chase scene in Miami Vice or anything similar — whereas the other half could be a good soundtrack for crowded bar scenes. The album does sort of quiet down towards the second half, with subtler, slower, more suspense­ful soundscapes, but you could argue that it simply reflects the passage of time, Side A taking place in broad daylight and Side B taking you on a trip into the shadows of night.

Individual highlights do not exist on this record: it really exists as a single conceptual piece with multiple movements. The grooves do not struggle for memorability: ʽThe Jezebel Spiritʼ, for in­stance, is very close in texture to the fast danceable numbers of Remain In Light, but has no central super-memorable riff or lead line, just a paranoid bass pulse and recurrent machine-gun rounds from various guitars and keyboards that are either too brief or too simple to imprint them­selves in memory — and the same applies to most other tracks, but that's OK: My Life is suppo­sed to produce a general overwhelming impression, not a set of particular small ones. In reality, no two tracks really sound the same, be it the rhythmic base, the musical overdubs, or the used samples, but the basic gut reaction from each one is the same — «fussy». Which is a perfectly normal state of being for Byrne, but not usually for Eno: the last time he got that fussy was on the first side of Before And After Science (whose own funky rhythms, by the way, are a direct pre­decessor to some of these tracks here).

And yes, returning to the samples, the samples do work. Arguably the best example would be the exorcist in ʽJezebel Spiritʼ, who just blends in so well with all that funk (and I am fairly sure the whole track must have been an influence on King Crimson's monstruous masterpiece ʽThela Hun Ginjeetʼ, released later in the year), but Reverend Paul Morton hardly lags behind on ʽHelp Me Somebodyʼ (I have no idea how they could secure the rights to that piece of sermoning, unless they somehow convinced the Reverend that, you know, God moves in mysterious ways), and Dunya Yusin is especially haunting on the creepy ʽRegimentʼ, whose syncopated bass line and Frippertronics (yes, Robert was there too) create quite an ominous atmosphere by themselves, but it never hurts to reinforce the atmospherics with the aid of a Lebanese mountain singer.

Fun fact: the first track on Side B on the original release was ʽQur'anʼ, for which Brian and David sampled the chanted recital of The Holy Book by a bunch of Algerian Muslims — only to have it removed and replaced with ʽVery, Very Hungryʼ (formerly the B-side of ʽJezebel Spiritʼ) at a later date due to the insistence of the Islamic Council of Great Britain, "in deference to some­body's religion", Byrne said later. Hey, we understand — nobody wants not to wake up one mor­ning with Yusuf Islam's dagger sticking out of your back, guys, even if those were not exactly the Je suis Charlie times. You can still listen to the finished track on Youtube these days, though (for now) — there is really nothing offensive about the way the recital is sampled, what with the groove itself having a distinct near-Eastern flavor, but of course the «protests» were issued more on general principle than any particular gripes.

Anyway, just forget about the alleged historical importance — sampling is such a poorly under­stood and clumsily theoretized business (like a lot of developments in modern art) that singling out its «revolutionaries» and «torch-bearers» is like dancing without a floor. The best way to get into this album is just to adapt yourself to the groove and then mentally transfer yourself to some imaginary setting — and then understand that setting as an actual metaphor for your own every­day life, particularly if you're a big city dweller that just keeps on running. Adopt this perspective, and thumbs up are guaranteed. Renounce it, and the whole thing will just be a weirder, but more boring imitation of Remain In Light. I know which one I choose. 

1 comment:

  1. That's a painting? It's always looked to me like a bunch of cut paper figures - look at the thin shadows at their edges.

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