If I wanted to toss off a short, pithy review of this album to balance out my opus of an essay on Bowie’s Buddha of Suburbia (below), I would simply write this: “this is as good as intelligent pop music gets, and you should buy a copy if you haven’t already.”
Obviously that’s not really enough to say, nor a compelling case, but it’s none the less absolutely true. If you’re looking for melodic yet un-formulaic pop-rock, complex arrangements draped over perfectly-executed fundamentals, chant-like choruses counterpointed by surreal metaphor, music that makes your soul fly and lyrics that make your brain spin -- this is your best bet ever, and truly one of my “Desert Island Discs.”
Stories vary about how much of a real “collaboration” this is -- rumour puts it akin to the final Beatles record in terms of inter-artist harmony -- but they got the damn thing out, and it’s just marvelous. Each man has put out better “pure” records of their own, but having them together (even if, on many tracks, the co-operation is minimal) is sonic heaven when it comes together, which it spends a great deal of its’ running time doing.
Neither Eno nor Cale need any introduction to fans of “art rock,” and both have charted uniquely oddball courses through the waterways of popular music. As much as I’ve wished for a continuation of this collaboration, it shouldn’t be surprising that they’ve had minimal public contact since this came out in 1990 -- their ships zig and zag so continuously that there’s only a tiny chance they should meet (artistically, that is) again.
The album kicks off with “Lay My Love,” which immediately sets the tone with Eno’s trademark exotic “rhythm bed,” Nell Catchpole’s multi-tracked violins, Cale’s fill-in keyboard sounds, Robert Ahwai ’s African rhythm guitar, and Eno’s wonderfully image-filled, poetic lyrics and layered vocals. Who else can write lines like I am the Termite of Temptation / I multiply and fly my population and make it sound perfectly sensible (and catchy to boot)?
But even with all the sophistication and worldliness behind these two men, they can’t quite seem to escape some of their obvious influences. There’s more than a trace of 50s and 60s music to be found under the surface, more than a hint of Velvet Underground going on here, even some bizarro-world Beach Boy pop bubbling up on occasion. Played at low volume, you might find even your mom shuffling her feet to the rhythms as long as she couldn’t make out the words. It is, in places, a dance record for people who don’t turn off their brains when they turn on their groove thang. “One Word,” the second track, is a good example, but “Been There, Done That” actually charted in the US, making it Eno’s only appearance on the Top 40.
Those who do listen to the lyrics, though, get yet another multi-layered onionskin to play with. From Eno’s name-dropping of his continental vacation (some oils at the Lourve remind him of souvenirs from Rome, which rhymes with Cologne) to Cale's crime-ridden sultry tropicanas, “One Word” gives voice to the worldliness that informs the entire album.
Cale’s first turn at vocals comes on track three, “In the Backroom,” which paints with both music and lyrics a sordid tale of the Mexican underworld that only a Marc Almond /Stan Ridgway collaboration could have hoped to match. It’s a quieter, lesser number than the two that proceeded it, but makes a nice dark counterpoint to Eno’s upbeat melodies.
The full glory of this album’s awesomeness dawns on the listener in “Empty Frame,” one of several minarets of musical mastery that just screams at Eno to keep writing great pop songs, because he’s so painfully good at it. From the production to the arrangement, there is nothing about this number that doesn’t bear almost eternal repeated listening. I’ve had it on my iPod since the first day I’ve owned one, and my heart still thrills whenever I hear the opening notes, and I relish any chance to sing along with the wonderfully foreboding, yet inspiring, sea-shanty chorus: Maybe we’re going round in circles / Where is this place we’re going to / Does anybody know we’re out here on the waves and / Are any of our signals coming through?“Empty Frame” by Brian Eno and John Cale from Wrong Way Up
After a musical orgasm like “Empty Frame,” you need a denouement to excuse yourself outside for a quick fag, and Cale’s heartbreaking “Cordoba” gives you that moment. It’s another quiet, unrelentingly depressing rain storm of a love song, with Cale playing Tom Waits to Eno’s Brian Wilson. Out of context, it gains more emotional currency, but in between the previous song and the unabashed masterpiece of “Spinning Away,” it acts only as a dark curtain drawn between the change of sets.
“Spinning Away” is, simply put, the best thing Brian Eno has or ever will write. Gathering the galaxy to dance on a sheet of drawing paper, creation pirouetting over pencils and stars shooting over a soaring, sonourous symphony, Eno climbs the mountain of pop perfection and stares out over the curving earth at twilight from a summit he will be hard-pressed to ever achieve again. The word painting here is at its peak, ably supported by Cale’s chords and piano work. If there was a point in which the two have truly formed a union of souls, this is it.
Following such a symphony, Cale’s “Footsteps” had to do more than take the lower, quieter road, and he rises to the occasion as if inspired by how glorious “Spinning Away” was. It’s like one of Split Enz’s better numbers, oddball and angular and shows that yes, Cale can write an unabashed pop song too.
“Been There, Done That” is the other most obvious truly collaborative effort -- Cale has finally emerged from the dark underbelly setting of his previous songs and stepped out into the light. Symbolically, it feels like Eno’s constant attacks of optimism have finally coaxed the grouchy old man into cracking a smile, and together they embark on a happy, alcohol-fueled remembrance of adventures past. The song may read like a cynic’s lament, but the execution is positively joyous. Or as joyous as "gloomy Gus" Cale ever gets, anyway ...
Cale finally makes his attitude adjustment complete with the boogie-woogie rock-n-roll tale “Crime in the Desert.” While Eno’s songs stay rooted in Europe and Cale’s seem keep taking place in seedy dives south of the border, they find a bluesy middle ground that Jools Holland must have discarded in an alley somewhere, and milk it for all its worth, even throwing in a great punchline: She adored the broken hearted / And those who showed her a bad time / They didn’t care for her body / They took advantage of her mind / So they stole her ideas / And left her behind. Fabulous.
The original disc ends with a returned favour by Eno: a mock-western (not the first one he’s done, and he’s so good at them) called “The River,” a Cale-esque “heavenly cowboy” number that actually eschews Cale entirely (Brian’s brother Roger fills in instead!). It’s almost like Cale wasn’t available to finish the project, and Eno figured he might be able to fake out the finale.
The new 2005 re-mastering, in addition to lightly cleaning up the sonics of the original (which benefits the instrumentation but unfortunately focuses the thinness of Eno’s and Cale’s vocals) adds two “b-sides,” a cover of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” (another western less obviously Cale-influenced, because it was originally done for a different project altogether, this time with Daniel Lanois as the Cale fill-in) and an Eno/Cale cast-off instrumental “Palanquin” (the latter of which is a US release exclusive).
Disappointingly, the other official “b-side” from the album, “Grandfather’s House,” continues to be found only on the “One Word” CD-single. Why they couldn’t have included it for completists always baffles me as it does every time this sort of thing happens, ie constantly. It’s not like there were so many b-sides that you ran out of room; this CD clocks in at 48 and a half minutes, so there’s plenty of filler space available.
Eno mentioned in an interview at the time that “Grandfather’s House” had been constructed out of random saying from a Spanish phrasebook, and while it’s not star material it would have fit in with the coda of the album as it now exists and been truer to the source than the guest-star team-ups that finish off the record now.
Little imperfections like this, however, do nothing to spoil the overall karma of this first true Cale-and-Eno collaboration, and while “alternately charming and angst-y” may throw the shallow hipsters who don't even know how Warhol created them, connoisseurs of precious, provocative pop will find this a ying-yang of worldly wonderment to savour and enjoy repeatedly.