It's fitting that the most infectious number on Wrong Way Up is called "Been There Done That," because few have covered as much musical terrain as Brian Eno and John Cale. Their Byzantine résumés of solo work, collaborations and productions for others wend back to the Velvet Underground and include many pivotal performers of the ensuing decades — David Bowie, Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers, Talking Heads and U2. But their own avant garde work has often been overlooked except by a cult following. Cale made a bit of an inroad into the mainstream this year with Lou Reed on Songs for Drella, but Eno, except for his cover of William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water," on the soundtrack to Married to the Mob, in 1988, has eschewed vocals — and any semblance of a pop career — since 1978's masterful Before and After Science.
Wrong Way Up, their first out-and-out collaboration, grew out of Eno's production of Cale's Words for the Dying last year, and the result is a gem, if an oddly anachronistic one. Their trademarks — haunting synth patterns, carefully plucked guitar strings, self-consciously simple lyrics, chantlike choruses and echoey production — have been so plundered by their protégés over the years that they have lost some of their initial mystique. While Eno's ethereal, multilayered voice still imbues the songs with a kind of floating soul, it now seems limited compared with, say, David Byrne's.
Yet beneath the studied, soothing ambience lies a clearheaded cleverness that gives the songs ballast. Backed by a few drumbeats and synthesizer fills, Cale's calm vocal delivery gives the simple story in "Cordoba" a chilly pathos. On "Empty Frame," Cale and Eno become warped, profound Beach Boys: Above a pulsating swell, Eno coos, "We push the empty frame of reason out the cabin door/No, we won't be needing reason anymore." And "Crime in the Desert" cheerfully recounts the travails of a desperado over a kitschy rock & roll piano.
Eno and Cale don't seek lyrical analysis; they're out to forge a spooky, catchy aural environment — and they're still masters. And when Eno closes Wrong Way Up with the sweet solo lullaby "The River," it becomes evident that, against the backdrop of today's increasingly programmed music, the icy Sultan of Synth now sounds refreshingly quaint — and surprisingly human.