In addition to being hailed as an innovative producer and an “idea man” par excellence, Brian Eno is the godfather of ambient music, a genre intended to provide pleasant background to enhance the tasks of everyday life. (In Eno’s words, it rewards attention but does not require it.) While such evocative works as Thursday Afternoon and Ambient 4: On Land have inspired ambient-house artists like the Orb and Aphex Twin and trip-hoppers like Portishead, Tricky and the Mo’ Wax crew, Eno’s latest ambient outings disappoint.
The 10 pieces on Spinner began as broad washes of synthesizer recorded for the soundtrack to Derek Jarman’s Glitterbug. Eno then handed over the tapes to bassist/co-producer Jah Wobble (PiL, Invaders of the Heart), letting him augment them in what, for Eno, was a rare surrender of control. But there wasn’t much that Wobble could do with songs like “Left Where It Fell.” The instrumentals lack the minimal melodies of Eno’s best ambient work, and despite occasional drumming from Can veteran Jaki Liebezeit, they are annoyingly static. Play this for motivation while you clean the house, and you’ll wind up dozing on the sofa.
The eight instrumentals on Original Soundtracks I aren’t any better, but the album is destined to have a higher profile since Passengers are Eno and the four members of U2. (The group is intended as an ongoing side project open to other collaborators, and guests who make cameos include Mo’ Wax DJ Howie B., Japanese singer Holi and opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti). As on Eno’s Music for Films, the songs are supposed to set the mood for movies that exist only in Eno’s imagination. The liner notes contain synopses of these invented films, but Eno’s words conjure more pictures than the languid, repetitive instrumentals like “Beach Sequence.”
The six tracks that include vocals are most engaging. “Slug” and “Always Forever Now” could be outtakes from Zooropa, with Bono doing some minimal crooning over skeletal backing tracks. Pavarotti’s outburst on “Miss Sarajevo” soars way over the top, but its campiness is matched by “Elvis Ate America,” which features Bono doing a goofy impersonation as he strings together Presley clichés. Unfortunately the latter is a ringer — a three-minute pop novelty set amid the ambient soundscapes — and it only underscores an overall lack of inspiration. Eno may have invented the genre, but he seems to have forgotten that ambient is supposed to be more than aural wallpaper.