BRIAN ENO: WRONG WAY UP (w. John Cale) (1990)
1) Lay My Love; 2) One Word; 3) In The Backroom; 4) Empty Frame; 5) Cordoba; 6) Spinning Away; 7) Footsteps; 8) Been There Done That; 9) Come In The Desert; 10) The River; 11) You Don't Miss Your Water*; 12) Palanquin*.
With Thursday Afternoon behind his belt, Brian Eno unofficially changed his name to Brian EnoUGH, and focused primarily on installations and all sorts of musical carpentry — so when he came back in 1990 with his next proper «musical» album, that part of the world for whom the name still mattered was probably quite shocked to learn that (a) not only would it be a collaboration with John Cale, another giant from the past, but (b) it would also be a pop album — Eno's first pop album in thirteen years, to be correct.
And if anything, as you listen to the opening electronic-syncopated rhythms of ʽLay My Loveʼ that opens the record, it's like those thirteen years never happened. Maybe the keyboard tones are a little different, since, clearly, Eno uses a different set of sound-generating gizmos in 1990 than he did in 1977, but the basic style of the song is not one inch different from Eno's basic style on Before And After Science, or, for that matter, Here Come The Warm Jets. Not one! Just the same combination of catchy melodicity, warm friendly vocals, tense rhythmics, and overall weirdness that used to make those records so accessible and so inimitable at the same time.
Behind all the joy there are problems, however. One is that, although all but one songs are jointly credited to Cale and Eno, Wrong Way Up does not sound like much of a collaboration. When you had Eno and Cluster, or Eno and Budd, or even Eno and Byrne, it was rather easy to spot the individual talents and tell who's contributing what, and it all added up to all sorts of exciting combinations of vibes. This record, in comparison, feels like half-Eno, half-Cale, and even if technically Cale probably plays keyboards, strings, and horns on some (all?) of the Eno songs and vice versa, the other guy is always being low-key while the first guy is singing and flashing his personality. So you have the Eno part (ʽLay My Loveʼ, ʽOne Wordʼ, ʽEmpty Frameʼ, ʽBeen There Done Thatʼ, etc.) and the somewhat smaller Cale part (ʽIn The Backroomʼ, ʽCordobaʼ, ʽFootstepsʼ, etc.), and they're quite different: Brian is still largely the friendly guy with a grin, Cale is still that second-gloomiest guy from the Velvet Underground after, you know... the first-gloomiest guy. The two personalities do not mesh that well.
Of course, they are not necessarily supposed to: Wrong Way Up could run on contrast rather than coherence. But this is where the second problem knocks on the door, and that is — these songs are not that good, honestly. After the first pangs of pleasure at the familiar sight and sweet memories triggered by ʽLay My Loveʼ are over, you begin to realize that the song is neither as fresh nor as tightly gripping as anything Eno did in the 1970s, even if the looped string riff is kinda cute and uplifting. This is just too much of a «let's go back there and see what we can do with the same old ingredients again» spirit to allow me to rate the song on the same level as ʽNeedle In The Camel's Eyeʼ or ʽNo One Receivingʼ, if you get my drift. It's a nice song, but it just doesn't — has no intention to — stick around all that long.
They even selected one of the songs here for a single, and it even charted in the States: ʽBeen There Done Thatʼ is a New Wave-stylized pop hopper that nicks its verse melody from Paul McCartney's ʽJunior Farmʼ (isn't that actually weirder than anything else on here?), is fairly infectious while it's on, but in the end just sounds like any medium-quality New Wave pop hit produced in the late 1970s or the early 1980s. Again, it's all fair, but it's Eno-lite, no surprises, all smoothness and nostalgia and, if you pardon the expression here, not a lot of soul. And then ʽThe Riverʼ sounds nice, but it is essentially fashioned in the mode of an old country-pop tune, something of a cross between the darkness of Johnny Cash and the sweetness of Ricky Nelson. I can understand Brian wanting to write and record something like that, but surely he could have no illusions that this (rather than, say, ʽBy This Riverʼ) is something that he would be remembered by long after Johnny Cash, Ricky Nelson, and his truly have given that unpredictable trio performance at Live Aid: A Benefit Concert For The Children Of Limbo, organized and sponsored by the Archangel Committee.
I must say that, in a way, I actually prefer the «purely Cale» slices on here — apparently, he was in some sort of Spanish phase here, so ʽIn The Backroomʼ is a moody Mexican tale with castanet overdubs and echoey guitars and violins, and ʽCordobaʼ is a subtly haunting minimalistic ballad about... nothing in particular; it tries to conjure a little bit of puzzling mysticism out of thin air and generally fails, but at least the attempt is worthwhile. In other words, whatever John is doing here does not simply seem like a stab at recapturing and repackaging old glories — Eno, on the other hand, can almost literally be seen hopping with a butterfly net after that elusive «spirit of 1977», and it is just a little odd for such a respectable gentleman to be seen hopping around.
Since none of the songs are decidedly bad, a thumbs up is still in order: the disappointed tone of the review is explained primarily by context — with those almost impossible quality standards that Eno's pop albums were setting in the mid-1970s, you could predict that any «comeback» like this would be a disappointment, but you'd still secretly hope for another grand slam. Still, let us look at the good sides, too — for instance, they pay no attention whatsoever to the actual pop trends of the time, bent completely on doing their own schtick by their own standards. And, as is usual with Eno, there are no attempts at self-aggrandizing or putting on Elder Statesman clothes or anything like that — aside from the usual cryptic lyrics that may or may not hold the key to the meaning of life, it's all quite unpretentious. And catchy, and well-produced, and enjoyable; but as for replay value — only for big fans of both artists, I'd say.