There was every reason to be excited about a new Brian Eno album: it is his first collection of instrumental tracks not connected with an art installation since 1997’s The Drop, it is Eno’s first for the venerable electronic label Warp, and considering his varied and often great track record, it might actually turn out to be something wonderful. It’s a shame then that Small Craft on a Milk Sea is greeted with the sound of head scratching instead of applause.
It’s not that Eno strays far afield from the world that he helped create. There are enough gentle waves of synthesizer beauty and humbly played melodies, as well as more tense sounding works that hearken back to his ’70s collaborations with German producers like Conny Plank and Hans-Joachim Roedelius to keep it comfortably in his oeuvre. There still seems to be some essential something missing. After a dozen or more listens, it still washes past without incident, sporadically piquing interest (it’s hard not to straighten up in one’s chair when the frittering beat and busy fretwork of “Horse” kick in) before moving back into the background.
Small Craft is constructed like one of Nike’s workout mixes. It starts off plaintively with pretty ambient tracks that find inspiration in their rosy-fingered titles: “Complex Heaven”, “Emerald & Lime” and builds in incidence and volume from there, layering on snapping beats from producer John Hopkins and Leo Abrahams’ clamoring guitar work. Climax is reached by the halfway mark in the guise of one of the album’s lesser moments, “Paleosonic”, and the rest is a long, slow and occasionally lovely comedown.
This sort-of narrative arc could also be applied to other build and release moments in our lives, like sex or a drug high. And perhaps those are just the activities that Eno and his collaborators are hoping you use this as a soundtrack for. In that sense, it might work smashingly. But for the sober and celibate listener, it breezes past, leaving hints of what could have been lingering in the air.