Resembling more an eccentric professor of quantum theory than a bona fide pop star pin up, in the early 1970s Eno almost single-handedly managed to turn rock and roll on its head in ways most musicians today could only dream of. An artist as restless as he was productive, whose approach to music making seemed more like that of a master painter, in that every album he produced was in itself a sort of exhibition, to be displayed, purchased, then put away by collectors until the next showing. And while many of his songs are based on traditional (English) pop, Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno obviously had no intentions of becoming the next Gary Glitter.
1977’s Before and After Science is even stranger than Another Green World which preceded it two years earlier. It’s an album full of off beats and exotic rhythms, sometimes to the extent that it is virtually impossible to tell which instrument is which, and who’s playing what. This is Eno as alchemist, the sorcerer of the studio, turning the most base and disparate of musical elements into pure sonic gold.
The album opens with the jerky white-man funk of “No One Receiving”, a multi-layered number consisting of an irresistible African beat, and a seemingly hypnotic vocal by the creator himself. Next is the bouncy and effervescent “Backwater”, which on the surface is perhaps one of the daggiest pop songs I’ve ever heard, almost bordering on Eurovision, yet somehow Eno makes it work. Like The Wiggles on dope. “Kurt’s Rejoinder” sees Eno busy in the lab again. It’s not my favourite track, bordering on filler if you ask me, relying too much on quirkiness and instrumental energy to sustain any sort of serious momentum.
“Energy Fools the Magician” is a little like Weather Report on a lazy day, anchored by obscure sounds and Percy Jones’s fretless bass. “King’s Lead Hat” is the most rock and roll composition here and the closest thing to being a party song in the Eno canon if there ever was. “Here He Comes” is a tender albeit upbeat ballad, with Phil Mananzera on guitars, plus plenty of piano and moog which successfully cast a certain pastoral brush of mood and colour across its tiny canvass.
“Julie With” is a sombre, reflective piece of minimal elegance, like waves washing on the beach at midnight under a full moon. “By this River” is a gentle ballad, which sees Eno in quirky crooner mode, singing to his loved one with lines such as “You talk to Me/As if from a distance/And I reply/With impressions chosen from another time”.
“Through Hollow Lands” is a humor piece, where once again we are sitting on the shore of eternity, gazing at the stars, listening to the waves, enjoying the moon’s reflection upon the sea. And so the album ends with “Spider and I”, another contemplative, atmospheric work, and a brief dirge for the “Ship that sails away/A thousand miles away”.
Before and After Science is ultimately a Zen album, possessed of a bucolic and brooding quality; and with its references to water and ocean running throughout, it’s a little bit like having one’s very own avant-garde Japanese garden trickling from out your stereo. Eno paints such simple albeit luscious landscapes with an almost effortless and subtle sonic brush, to the extent that one can there briefly shut out and forget all the chaos of the outside world, all its din and madness, and be reassured that he, the pilot, will direct you through the dreary fog of all your temporal dreams, and allow you to drift away within your own digital subconsciousness. Perhaps that’s more than anyone could ask.