This article suggests that there’s a running theme in Brian Eno’s work that is akin to mysticism. I’m not claiming Eno is a mystic or a religious person in any way, in fact I’m sure he isn’t. But in the lyrics of several songs are strong suggestions of what we might call mysticism in its broadest sense.
A person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect. (Oxford Dictionary)
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The present moment
One of my lifelong interests has been meditation; not really for its own sake but for the insights it provides in everyday life.
When meditation is discussed in the context of Zen Buddhism, there’s an emphasis on being still in the present moment. Of course, you can’t be anywhere other than the present moment but here it means appreciating the present moment and dropping concerns with past and future. This appreciation doesn’t last, and part of the practice is letting go of whatever the fruits of the insight are – peace or joy or whatever – and moving on.
This dropping of concern with past and future, meaning thoughts and desires for the past and future, goes deeper in that what sometimes happens is that the self disappears. What? It doesn’t mean you become a zombie or a robot, but that the feeling of ‘I’ being somehow in the driving seat, steering the body through life like a fork lift truck, disappears and momentarily the sensations of the world are experienced directly. So instead of ‘ I am hearing the birds outside ‘ there’s just the experience of the sound. The ‘I’ is unnecessary. This experience gives whatever one is looking at or hearing a special significance and a sense of being an element in some larger, transcendent experience.
This experience is described in literature across the world and throughout history. While Zen Buddhism tends to focus on it, it doesn’t own it. Wordsworth’s poetry returns to it again and again.
“Oft in these moments such a holy calm
Would overspread my soul, that bodily eyes
Were utterly forgotten, and what I saw
Appeared like something in myself, a dream:
A prospect in the mind”
(Prelude, Book V)
“The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light.”
(Ode on Intimations of Immortality)
Eno is not a Buddhist, he’s naturally bald
To me this sense of the sudden recognition of the beauty of the moment seems to be a recurring theme in Eno’s lyrics. I’m not suggesting Eno is a Buddhist or even a meditator, although he is familiar with the concepts of both. In fact in a public gig in a Liverpool record shop, when Robert Fripp invited questions, he was asked if Eno was involved in Buddhism. Fripp said ‘Eno’s not a Buddhist. He’s naturally bald.’
There were hints of it in a few songs on his first three albums, for example, Golden Hours from Another Green World:
How can moments go so slow.
I’ve seen the evening slide away
Watching the signs
Taking over from the fading day
But these are just couplets out of context in songs whose themes are generally opaque and possibly produced by randomising methods.
Julie With …
The first song that focuses only on this insight is Julie With, from 1977’s album Before and After Science. What a perfect evocation of a moment of beauty, with sensual language pulling in sight, sound and touch, and perhaps a slight sense of foreboding, that this moment can’t last:
I am on an open sea
Just drifting as the hours go slowly by
Julie with her open blouse
Is gazing up into the empty sky
Now it seems to me so strange here
Now it’s so blue
The still sea is darker than before
No wind disturbs our coloured sail
The radio is silent, so are we
Julie’s head is on her arm
Her fingers brush the surface of the sea
Now I wonder if we’ll be seen, here
Or if time has left us all alone
The still sea is darker than before
By This River
On the same album By This River, sung over a simple, spacious piano figure, could be the same moment from another viewpoint:
Here we are
Stuck by this river
You and I
Underneath a sky that’s ever falling down, down, down
Ever falling down
Through the day
As if on an ocean
Always failing to remember why we came, came, came
In 1978, Eno released a second collaboration with the German musicians Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, called After The Heat, which contains my favourite Brian Eno song – The Belldog. It seems to describe a worker, a functionary in some kind of surveillance station, who loses his sense of a separate self in a glorious epiphany of the world and the sky. That’s my interpretation anyway.
Most of the day, we were at the machinery
In the dark sheds that the seasons ignored
I held the levers that guided the signals to the radio
But the words I received, random code, broken fragments from before
Out in the trees, my reason deserted me
All the dark stars cluster over the bay
Then in a certain moment, I lose control
And at last, I am part of the machinery
(Belldog, Where are you?)
And the light disappears
As the world makes its circle through the sky
The Belldog in the title puzzled me for years. When I came across Eno talking about it in the book More Dark Than Shark by Russell Mills, it seems to bear little relation to the song itself but in itself is a good story:
‘I was walking through Washington Square Park, towards the “Arc de Triomphe” style monument there. There was a little group of people under the arch, and the full moon stood low on the horizon, visible through the top of the arch. As I got closer I saw what it was that had attracted their attention. A very grubby man of indeterminate age was playing an out-of-tune upright piano on wheels: his touch was that of a plummy night club pianist, but the chords he used were completely strange. Over this sequence of soft discords he sang, again and again, in a trembling voice: “The belldog, where are you?” I have no idea what he meant by the belldog. For me it was (and is) an unidentified mythical character from some unfamiliar mythology…So the vague feeling I have about the belldog is that he is a herald; of what is not clear. Whatever it is, in the song he has either not yet appeared or has gone away…’
This sense of falling into a mystical union with the world around us, particularly the sky, returned in one of Eno’s most popular songs, Spinning Away, from his 1990 collaboration with John Cale, Wrong Way Up. Again the lyrics stand up for themselves, echoing The Belldog and By This River:
Up on a hill, as the day dissolves
With my pencil turning moments into line
High above in the violet sky
A silent silver plane – it draws a golden chain
One by one, all the stars appear
As the great winds of the planet spiral in
Spinning away, like the night sky at Arles
In the million insect storm, the constellations form
On a hill, under a raven sky
I have no idea exactly what I’ve drawn
Some kind of change, some kind of spinning away
With every single line moving further out in time
And now as the pale moon rides (in the stars)
Her form in my pale blue lines (in the stars)
And there, as the world rolls round (in the stars)
I draw, but the lines move round (in the stars)
There, as the great wheels blaze (in the stars)
I draw, but my drawing fades (in the stars)
And now, as the old sun dies (in the stars)
I draw, and the four winds sigh (in the stars)
The music, a standard four-chord sequence you’ve heard in a million songs, builds beautifully from a sparse and slightly jerky rhythm to a glorious sunset of harmonies and strings.
Calm and ecstasy
I’m picking mainly on Eno’s lyrics here. But I think there’s some consistency with his approach to instrumental music too – a sense of calm and spaciousness reminiscent of meditation. Also an embrace of the ephemeral in his generative music pieces, where an algorithm will throw up a beautiful cluster of notes that won’t ever be repeated in the same form.
I don’t mean to overstate this aspect of Eno’s work – it’s a minor tributary to the river, and this may be all over-interpretation on my part. But this music of ecstasy and absorbtion has always been a fascination. For most of the history of rock it’s been associated with psychedelia and drugs but here it’s coming from a highly intelligent, analytical, drug-free composer and visual artist – that’s why I love it.
PS that four chord sequence
In the hope of rescuing this post from getting too po-faced, I have to note that those four chords used in Spinning Away have a pedigree as long as the history of music – see The Axis of Awesome: