On the majority of Brian Eno’s genre-defining ambient albums, pastoral but progressive instrumentation is outlined with a defined tone and purpose. Then, against largely resistant resolve, the music melts before your ears. For The Ship, Eno’s newest slow-fade, still-life recording, the effect is slightly altered. Perhaps it’s the imagery the title creates or the séance-like vocal fabric that accents the heavily impressionistic arrangements, but this time the music is purposely adrift in aural fog. At times, a nautical reference emerges, but it never sails into clear, close view. The keyboards ooze like ocean waves, clang like far-off buoys and set up vocal passages — something new for Eno’s usually instrumental ambient outings (although they have long been an integral part of his more pop-directed ventures) — that sound like Kraftwerk in non-dance mode.
The Ship is divided into two extended compositions, the 21-minute title work and a three-part 26 minute suite, Fickle Sun. There might be thematic differences between both, but the resulting music is fairly similar in the way it unfolds with glacial pace and purpose.
The Flying Dutchman sentiments in The Ship’s title piece are palpable. Eno and a modest-sized crew — keyboardist/assistant producer Peter Chilvers and a team of “siren voices” — create a ghostly pastiche of a sea chantey. The music flows with unsettled and unending grace until scattered fragments of voices confirm the composition’s otherworldly detachment. You can read all kinds of interpretations into such a design, the most obvious being lost souls at sea conversing as their ship swirls aimlessly in a sonic Bermuda Triangle until a repeated vocal incantation (“wave after wave”) signals eventual resignation and doom. Mostly, though, this is Eno speaking with the kind of subtle drama that has made his non-pop recordings of the past four decades so arresting.
Fickle Sun, especially the lengthy introductory title movement, is more disturbing. The keyboard-dominated music swirls like a slow-motion cyclone, but the intensity gradually builds until guitar-charged torrents of sound pour in to recall longtime Eno ally Robert Fripp’s similarly structured Soundscapes recordings.
But the two abbreviated sections that follow are serious surprises: a stately narrative titled The Hour is Thin recited by Peter Serafinawicz and an unexpectedly affirmative requiem, I’m Set Free.
The later isn’t an Eno work, but a Lou Reed classic first cut for the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album from 1969. Its placement as a coda on this understated storm of an album represents a passage into some undefined ray of light. An afterlife? A direction homeward? A ray of aural sunshine that dissolves the record’s unrelenting grayness? Take your pick. But the interpretation brings The Ship to a peaceful port and beautifully concludes one of Eno’s most captivating albums in ages.