The atmosphere surrounding the rush to contextualise the past 12 months has mostly been all doom-and-gloom, and for those of us for whom popular culture is not just a fun way to pass the time but a singular obsession, it can be easy to shift the weight of responsibility its way when it’s not all about providing comfort. This is seen when someone expresses deep and catastrophic confusion that a demagogue became US president when they’ve shared Last Week Tonight videos on Faceook week after week as if that itself would solve it; also in dismissing a desire to return to an imagined superior past as contemptible, while in the same breath giving Stranger Things a pass simply because it gave them a pat on the back for recognising science fiction clichés from the Reagan era.
Which brings us to Reflection, Brian Eno’s latest ambient piece, and by his own estimation his most sophisticated. Unlike other artists who have placed themselves as the face of a huge musical movement, Eno hasn’t visibly suffered any form of internal backlash against the music he popularised. In fact, he’s quite pleased and proud that, by and large, listeners are using ambient music as he intended – not as a dopamine generator or a sleep aid (though those are very effective and valid approaches), but as “a provocative space for thinking”. Its title is an acknowledgment of Eno’s own recent state of mind. In a Facebook post, he took stock of the year that was with an uncommon generosity and optimism, while also acknowledging the struggles of the past and to come:
“People are rethinking what democracy means, what society means and what we need to do to make them work again. People are thinking hard, and, most importantly, thinking out loud, together… This is the start of something big. It will involve engagement: not just tweets and likes and swipes, but thoughtful and creative social and political action too… Inequality eats away at the heart of a society, breeding disdain, resentment, envy, suspicion, bullying, arrogance and callousness. If we want any decent kind of future we have to push away from that, and I think we’re starting to. 2017 should be a surprising year.”
Like any individual statement, there’s plenty of space to argue with what Eno puts forward, but the very purpose of his new record is to cut out the unnecessary flim-flam that encumbers any artistic statement and provide a service for us to examine ourselves. As new-agey as it sounds, it is definitely not music for the latest energy-healing scam. Ambient music is often classified with that most swift of eye-glaze generators “chill-out”, but in Eno’s hands it’s anything but – more than anything he wants you to take a step back and ask some difficult questions, whether inwardly or out loud. It’s fortuitous (or, more likely, part of Eno’s design) that it sees release in a week where many are predisposed to do just that, as they take their first steps into new year resolutions. Eno’s confidence in this functionality is evident in how it has affected him personally. These projects have come to be a necessary salve in Eno’s career – though his talents have taken him from from breakout flamboyant rock star to near-mythic producer behind the most interesting diversions in stadium rock acts, ambient experimentation is the well he returns to periodically, as though it’s a necessary outlet to consider his next steps after huge, energy-sapping projects.
Reflection is a pure distillation of Eno’s interest in music that refutes the skepticism of perpetual motion, a piece that exists as a coda of itself, a sunset suspended in amber and held against a flickering light. This extends to more than the album available in shops. The Apple Store version of the album is the best example of his thesis. The “official” version of the album is but one instance of a process whereby Eno set up rules for how the piece would work and develop, tested it out in various situations, and tweaked the path slightly to fit particular times of day. The app, then, is a never-ending piece that adapts itself to fit whatever part of the day you happen to tune into. Usually when the word “algorithm” is used to describe music, particularly that of an electronic bent, it bypasses the actual definition of the word, but in the case of Reflection, it is absolutely apt.
That said, the app’s hefty price-tag and exclusivity to Apple products will understandably be a turn-off, but luckily the regular album does not suffer in its versatility. The content of the music itself – a sound resembling a sine-wave at rest, sporadic bells (possibly a vibraphone), a swelling bass rumble – is as effective in a meditative position through a stereo system as it is on headphones walking through a busy city street or bucolic village. The reintroduction of the bells is common enough to remind you of the stage of a mindfulness session where you begin allowing the sounds of the outside world to pass by rather than pierce you. By the end they reach an hypnotic quality just tuned enough so that, despite a minimal change in character, it becomes an exercise in contrast akin to a short-sighted person putting on glasses for the first time.
A very positive movement in culture recently has been the overdue increased awareness of art that seeks to break free of the constraints offered by largely distraction-focused, well-worn approaches. These acts have points-of-view, and aren’t afraid to get assertive to make their point. Ambient music is no exception, with dark ambient acts such as The Haxan Cloak and Tim Hecker setting the stage for a producer like Dedekind Cut to release one of 2016’s strongest albums. $uccessor was a mission statement for an alternative approach to ambient that stands apart from the established canonical works that have been, admittedly, pretty damn white and male. This music is vital, and deserves all the praise and attentive audiences it gets. It’s a development I am sure Eno is very happy with, though there is still time for him to develop the important role he sees sound as generously offering for the taking: carve out an hour or so where What The Artist Thinks doesn’t matter, and allow yourself the time to examine what’s important to you, at your own pace.
Reflection stands out because it’s reaffirming the potential for music to unlock something inside – similar Eno pieces such as Thursday Afternoon and Textures by comparison are almost distracting in their emphasis on gee-whiz beauty and wonder. Eno takes a risk by back-pedalling for this project, but the gentle significance given to understatement ultimately pays off. It’s generative in the sense not just of a never-ending math equation, but that the contents can change purely by the whim of what happens to be on your mind that day. It’s the musical version of a supportive teacher who assures you that there are no stupid questions.