Guest vocalists abound on Brian Eno's new album. If you're acquainted with his resume, your mental Rolodex is probably already spinning. Bono. Bowie. Byrne. Ferry. Cale. Laurie Anderson, Sinead O'Connor, Grace Jones, Geoffrey Oryema, Baaba Maal, that guy from Coldplay . . .
But one thing about Eno — actually, probably the definitive thing about Eno — is that he's not the type to go flipping through old notebooks. "I hate remembering," he grumbled recently, literally turning his back and walking away from a BBC TV interviewer. "I can't bear it."
Drums Between the Bells, the new album from the world's most highly sought record producer and one of its most celebrated progressive thinkers, is thus devoid of the superstar cameos that pepper his remarkable back story.
As ever, it takes new ground as its raison d'etre.
"What I was trying to do was to make something that was halfway between song and poem," he explains, "to use the conventions of songs – music, repeats, verses, choruses, changes of texture and so on – but then to float poems over the top of them."
His tone of lingering wonder is a good sign. Although he's using the dreaded phone interview as an opportunity to varnish some paintings he prepared earlier ("I hope you don’t mind me doing a bit of multi-tasking?"), the project is still swimming in enough mystery to keep his imagination firing.
He remains somewhat tickled, for instance, about how the various unknown voices found their way onto the album, a collaboration with London poet Rick Holland which has been unfolding sporadically since 2003.
"Caroline Wildi works in my local health club, at reception," he chuckles. "I've always loved her voice: perfectly cut and rather smoky . . . there's something sinister about a voice as crystalline as hers."
Another, the alluringly "vowel-y" Laura Spagnuolo, is the press officer at a non-government organisation for which Eno is patron. "Her voice gives you the shivers," he says, "even on the phone, when she's talking about how many seats we need for a charity dance."
A third, South African Elisha Mudly, he found on the street: "She was looking at a map the wrong way up and I said 'What are you looking for?' She said 'A job'. I said 'OK, I've got one for you'." He laughs fit to spill his varnish.
"Mostly what I'm drawn to is when people have a distinctive personal melody," he says, "when you get a mood immediately from listening to somebody's voice."
If you had to generalise more broadly about what gets Eno in the mood, beginning with the strangeness he brought to those first Roxy Music records 40 years ago, ducking and weaving through nearly 20 largely uncategorisable solo albums, at least as many collaborations and 50-odd production jobs, you might arrive somewhere in the vicinity of The Unknown.
As ever, that's the secret ingredient to Drums Between the Bells. As his paintbrush flicks softly over unseen paintings, the master of sonic suggestion traces his intrigue with the drama of the disembodied voice back to the BBC radio plays that mesmerised him as a child.
"I think a solo voice is possibly more captivating than anything else at all," he says, "because your own imagination has to do so much of the work, in the same way as reading a book can engage you in a way that a film perhaps wouldn't. If you're into it, it becomes your work as much as the author's work.
"Similarly with spoken word. The voice on its own just calls out to every part of you that is creative and says 'Finish this picture'."
With Eno manipulating an expansive virtual orchestra of electronic textures, this album's set design is obviously more vivid than most radio actors ever imagined. Nor, given the panoramic legacy of his work, is the director ever really out of shot.
He laughs at the suggestion that encroaching competence might be undermining his proud status as a "non-musician". But there's no question that certain signature Eno-isms echo through even these unknown tracks: the meditative ring of *The Pearl* here, a squiggle of *Remain in Light* there, splashes from the vast colour chart of the "ambient" series elsewhere.
"Mmm. I know you mean," he says. "When I'm doing things, it always seems to me that everything is new. I get excited when I think 'Gosh, this is a feeling that I haven't had before. I love this'. It's only in retrospect, when I listen to something I'll think, 'Yes, that is quite a lot like such-and-such'.
"I don't mind that much," he adds. "In some ways, discovering consistency can be somewhat reassuring because it indicates to you that you're not completely random with what you're doing.
"But I don't consciously repeat things. I really can't bear it. If somebody said 'Oh, I love that song, can you write another one like it?' I just wouldn't do it. I couldn't do it."
It's hard to overstate the value of this conviction to Eno's work — and by extension to the evolution of recorded music. Most musicians strive for it, of course, but they battle not only against the limitations of their own creative DNA but with the fundamental reality that familiarity breeds satisfaction.
Without wading through too many neuropsychological papers, the booming nostalgia market is perhaps ample evidence that musical receptors, especially as they get older, crave the vibrations that got their pleasure centres gushing in the old days.
"I don't do a lot of nostalgic listening," Eno says. "I like finding new things to listen to." It's fair to remark that this is an amusing irony, considering how many people have had so many of his albums on rotation for so long.
"I did have a nostalgic listen to something recently," he admits. "I re-bought Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark, which I think is one of the great albums of all time, and I really enjoyed listening to that. I really, really, really enjoyed it. But I only did it once."
Modern listening habits have brought new mystery to Eno's processes. When he made his first solo albums in the mid 1970s, it was easy for him to imagine the scenarios in which the songs would be received: in a bedroom, on a hi-fi system, in a car, in the order they were presented . . .
"It's slightly more difficult now because you really don't know what level of attention you're addressing," he says. "Is it clever to put complicated, hidden things in a track if nobody is ever going to look for them? Or would you be smarter to reduce it and make it sharp and clear and straightforward?
"I don't think there's anything better or worse than the past," he concludes, "but certainly it's different to how it was."
Different is fine by him. For the multi-tasking modern listener on the perpetual move, shuffle play is "highly recommended" for Drums Between the Bells, Eno says — although there's clearly some poetry in his own track sequence.
"Bless this space in sound and rhyme," he personally intones by way of welcome. He takes the vocal on the closing track, too, ensuring a parting gift of unambiguous optimism from the tangled moods and meanings of the preceding 45 minutes: "Things will be all right."
"Yes. I've actually become much more optimistic as I've got older about all sorts of things. In fact I'm really pushing optimism now," he says with a laugh.
"I think there's a civilisational tendency to be pessimistic. We're always thinking 'Oh my God the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket, everything is getting worse'. But it's refreshing to discover that people have been thinking this since the ancient Greeks . . . "
He warms to this theme at length, rebuking the myopic predictions of 18th century thinker Thomas Malthus in favour of a forthcoming book by Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes.
"Pessimists should be reminded that part of their pessimism is an inability to imagine the creative ideas of the future," he says.
The interview is history before the thought gets old. And on he paints.
Drums Between the Bells is out today. .
Drums Between the Bells
MEDITATION tapes often come with a caution about listening while operating a motor vehicle. Created by Brian Eno to enhance and envelop the work of contemporary poet Rick Holland, these mesmeric collages of spoken word and music begin with driving electronic grooves before wandering across lanes into delightfully soporific fog. The crisp consonants and techno-language of Glitch, Sounds Alien and Multimedia call for sharp, rhythmic soundscapes. Dreambirds and Pour It Out make their feather beds in chiming caverns of classic Eno ambience, perfect atmospheres for Holland's beguiling images and the intimate, heavily accented recitations of various found females. Voices are sometimes treated — dramatically auto-tuned on Glitch; slooooowly stretched on The Real; doubled in robotic harmony on Dow — but more often, Holland's words are laid bare by unadulterated breath. If this were a book of poems, its centre pages would offer the blank respite of a contemplative Eno instrumental and its afterword (a peaceful minute after the main body of work) a long, mysterious prayer intoned in a church of windchimes. Most tellingly, it would be the kind you wanted to open more than once.
This article first appeared in The Age, Melbourne, on July 8, 2011