Before and After Science is being touted as Brian Eno’s most commercial album, and with some reason: it’s a graceful, seductively melodic work, and side one even kicks off with a neat little disco riff. But this view also confuses the issue. People who think of Eno solely in terms of the static, artsy instrumentals on David Bowie’s Heroes and Low forget, or never knew, that on Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), the master of dadaist cybernetics also made some of the wittiest and most enjoyable music of our time. These records were supremely entertaining, in the best sense, and they were rock & roll. By contrast, Before and after Science is austere and restrained, an enigma in a deceptively engaging skin.
Not that Eno isn’t the avant-garde intellectual genius everyone always says he is. But he’s also a deeply emotional artist whose music, for all its craft, often seems to emerge straight from the subconscious, his compositions suffused with a humane serenity and marvelous, clearheaded tenderness in the face of decadence. In this context, Eno’s obsession with patterns is the modern equivalent of the romantic’s craving to recapture a lost past. And this obsession is the real source of both the surreal, infectious high spirits and the almost subliminal melancholy that run in constant parallel through all his work.
On Before and after Science, the gaiety is given a sketchy, restless treatment, and the melancholy predominates. As a result, the new LP is less immediately ingratiating than either Taking Tiger Mountain or Here Come the Warm Jets. Still, the execution here is close to flawless, and despite Eno’s eclecticism. the disparate styles he employs connect brilliantly. At first, the pulsating drive of “Backwater” seems totally at odds with the resigned lyricism of “Julie With…” or “Spider and I,” but it soon becomes clear that drive and lyricism are only complementary variables, organized by the album’s circular structure.
Like all of Eno’s records, Before and after Science is concerned with journeys that have no destination and end only in pauses. Traditional pastoral images of river and sky are the LP’s central verbal motifs; when cued to the electronic instrumentation and to Eno’s shifting, kinetic sense of rhythm, these images take on a powerful, futuristic concreteness. The classical irony, “You can never step in the same river twice,” is the album’s real epigraph in more ways than one.
Brian Eno’s position is ambiguous almost by definition: a perfect child of science, he uses its rationalism to celebrate mystery. For him, technology is not bloodless machinery, but a wondrous instrument of delight. This delight, however muted, is still what makes Before and after Science linger so vividly in the mind. One title here may crystallize the paradox: “Energy Fools the Magician.” That seems to say it all — until you realize it says just as much the other way around.