Fresh off the press is LUX, the newest album from the grandfather of ambient, Brian Eno.
Now with ambient albums that I’m approaching for the first time I try to keep as open a mind as possible. Actually that holds true for all albums but with ambient it is especially true. Why? Because ambient is a very deliberate genre for the most part; it is rather efficacious at generating very particular images within the mind’s eye, summoning memories and invoking emotional responses in you using very little music. At least, this is the direction that the genre has taken in recent years in my opinion, which is something of a divergence away from the original purpose of the sound as devised by the Grand Master Eno himself; Music For Airports was supposed to be an album that soothed the mind and set it at rest, one that enveloped the listener is soft swathes of sound that were unobtrusive in the background yet just compelling enough to be interesting when listened to actively. Fundamentally however it had no ulterior motive, no underlying imagery to impart to the listener. Indeed this premise largely continued through the other albums of the Ambient suite and the same can also be said of LUX, which is in my opinion a very, very late Ambient 5.
Now we are getting to the core of my issues with this album, and why it is that my usually open mind has suddenly become very disappointed and disenchanted with what I hoped would be an excellent late-in-the-year album from one of the all time greats; it really does feel like Eno is stagnating in an, frankly, ancient sound (or perhaps mindset would be a better word). Yes, Music for Airports was a fantastic and extremely novel concept in 1978 when it was released, hell, it was genre-defining, but it isn’t 1978 anymore, it’s 2012, and a lot has changed within the genre of Ambient in those 34 years. This “background music” mentality has disappeared almost completely and Eno should know that; his collaborative efforts like Apollo: Soundtracks and Atmospheres are some of the albums that have even helped subtly change the genre and push it towards a direction closer to what it is today; a medium for generating atmospheres and summoning fantastic landscapes in the mind. This is why I take issue with LUX, it is an album that propagates a sound that has long since disappeared and is frankly irrelevant in ambient today. I don’t listen to ambient albums to be soothed anymore, I think that is simply a by-product of the nature of the music at hand, I listen to them for their intelligent and careful construction that inspires such a wide variety of feelings.
LUX is as crisp and as intelligent as its Ambient forebears, but it also has that same clinical nature, that same sterility and absolute precision that makes me feel distant from the music. There is a kind of forced casuality (not a word but you know what I mean) to the sound, a sound that really desperately wants to be seen as unforced and effortless yet is so obviously painstakingly crafted that it just comes off as trying too hard. Its minimal strings and seemingly random delicate piano make this feel more like a Modern Classical/Improvisation release rather than Ambient, and we are treated to this lightweight, shimmering atmosphere for a whopping 75 minutes. I must say that by the 3rd of the 4 ~20 minute tracks I am beginning to feel a little exhausted by it all, fed up of its sparse 80’s-esque synthesisers and aimless attitude. LUX doesn’t invoke anything in me, it doesn’t transport me anywhere or summon memories or thoughts, it just…goes. Ok sure, I might stick this on one bedtime when I feel particularly exhausted and want something uncomplicated and mellow for some background listening but I feel that it’s insulting to Ambient to maintain this paradigm that is so outdated; Ambient 1 had its moment, I don’t particularly want it rehashed 30 years later when it is not longer relevant.
I’m not saying that this is how everyone will feel, I’m positive that there are going to be people who come away from this record and say that I am completely wrong and it conjures all sorts of internal imagery and that Ambient doesn’t constrain itself to the parameters that I attribute to it, but that is just how I feel. Cynical, I’ll admit, but there you have it.