Was there a memo that was handed out in 1977 that told you that Low was definitely better than ”Heroes” and that Another Green World was definitely better than Before and After Science? Because apparently I missed it.
As far as I can tell, Before and After Science often gets criticized for two express reasons:
1. It’s not Another Green World.
2. It’s kind of normal from a man whose first album was a concept album about urinating.
As for the first reason? Criticisms of the album that start and end with “This isn’t Another Green World” are about as useful as “This isn’t Abbey Road.” Hyperbolic? Definitely, but you see the point. Even Brian Eno describes the differences between the two; dubbing that one “sky music,” complete with song titles like “Sky Saw” and “Spirits Drifting,” and this one “ocean music,” complete with song titles like “Backwater” and “By This River.” To quote Robert Christgau, “To call this album disappointing is to complain that it isn’t transcendent.” Exactly—I don’t need my music to be transcendent, I just need it to be good, and 9 times out of 10, Before and After Science deliver. Actually, that’s a higher consistency rate than Another Green World, which ran for about the same time over 14 tracks instead of 10; there’s a huge amount of quality control here. Tellingly, Brian Eno cut the album out of over 120 possible tracks, worried he wouldn’t be able to deliver after the positive critical reception to Another Green World. I think he did just fine. The only time Before and After Science doesn’t quite deliver is on “Through Hollow Lands (For Harold Budd),” which sounds like what would happen if Harold Budd sat at a piano but had no formal piano training. The heavy mixing of the bass doesn’t distract from the fact that there’s no semblance of melody except every time it finally drops into a synth slab, which is unfortunately, too far and too few in between.
As for the second reason? Despite my respect for Pitchfork’s Chris Ott, I’ll use his review of Before and After Science as my starting point and go from there:
“While one can reconcile Eno’s first three pop albums as evolution, making all manner of laughably obvious observations […] it’s far harder, and, I’d argue, impossible, to force 1977’s Before and After Science into such a linear construct. Recorded after Eno’s immersion in David Bowie’s world, Before and After Science is a slick, somehow flat album that, in damning retrospect, resonates as a precursor to what Eno would try to shape the Talking Heads into: white people playing African pop music.
While it’s ludicrous to liken, and inexcusable to condemn a record for its similarities to music it predates, it’s nonetheless impossible given his famous strong-arming of the Talking Heads to extricate Eno’s vocal similarity to David Byrne in many of these tracks. While that’s a prejudice to be disregarded, even without the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear Eno has retreated into some Roxy retreads here (“Backwater”, “Here He Comes”), and slid into side-two amorphousness in exactly the same way his collaborations with Bowie had. “Spider and I” may be the most beautiful (platonic) love song written from one man to another, harking back to Another Green World with its lush synthesized waves, and the sparse chants of “Julie With…” shoulder its more dated keys, but the rest of the album’s last movement is twinkling inconsequence. Before and After Science is the neutered star in search of fuel, boasting only “King’s Lead Hat” for the pop world, and the luminous pure prog-jazz of “Energy Fools the Magician” for the out-rock contingent.”
Firstly; it’s an oversimplication to say that “King’s Lead Hat” is the only offering Before and After Science has for the pop world (and even if you do subscribe to it, you could just as easily layer the same criticism for Another Green World’s “I’ll Come Running (To Tie Your Shoes)”). A good five tracks fit the bill, basically the entire first side after you swap the instrumental “Energy Fools the Magician” with the ballad “Here He Comes.” And despite the fact that “King’s Lead Hat” has become everybody’s favorite Brian Eno song, complete with a crashing intro a la “Be My Wife” meets “Like A Rolling Stone” and followed from there by the rhythmic energy of the Talking Heads, methinks it gets a little too much attention for its anagrammed title.
Personally, the infinitely better pop song is “Backwater,” which boasts melody as much as it does rhythm. And even if you could ignore what was going on in the interplay between the piano, bass, drums and synths (not to mention those handclaps), you’d still have to deal with the dictionary definition of fun: hearing Brian Eno run through internal rhymes (like it’s a wonder he never started a rap career), “If you study the logistics / And heuristics of the mystics / You will find that their minds rarely groove in a line / So it’s much more realistic / To abandon such ballistics / And resign to be trapped on a leaf in a vine.” Note how the piano riff ascends while Eno’s vocal melody descends during the last three notes of certain lines. It’s the only time in Brian Eno’s discography where he hasn’t resigned to his lazy way of just throwing words on top of songs and hoping they’d stick (something he obviously did for “King’s Lead Hat” after he worked out the anagram).
As far as I’m concerned, Chris Ott drawing lineages from Before and After Science to the past (Roxy Music), the present (David Bowie) and to the near-future (Talking Heads) is not a criticism. Actually, it’s quite the opposite, considering how those three acts were some of the best of a decade that had huge shoes to fill following the dissolution of the Beatles. And even if “Backwater,” “Kurt’s Rejoinder” and “King’s Lead Hat” could be criticized for their—for lack of a better word—normalcy, there’s still half an album’s worth left. “No One Receiving” might not have the melodic hook that the previously mentioned three tracks do, but it manages to marry Brian Eno’s current pop fascination with his previous quirky quality. Listen to those guitar (?) bleeps that start coming in at the 1:24 mark, taking a page out of the squawking of “The Paw-Paw Negro Blowtorch” but manages to work it into the track’s rhythm section instead of trying to carry the track by itself. Meanwhile, in the two minutes of “Energy Fools the Musician,” in between the main melody, it sounds like either Percy Jones is working magic out of his bass guitar or Eno is exploring every crook and cranny out of the piano.
And despite the constant pigeonholing that the second half of Before and After Science takes after the second halves of Low or ”Heroes”, barring one track that doesn’t feature vocals (the already covered “Through Hollow Lands”) and the rest do not complete abandon popular aesthetics (there are melodic hooks to be found in all four) in favour for the ambient exercises of either David Bowie album. There aren’t any tricks in “By This River,” stripped down to the bare essentials, a gentle piano melody that capture waves breaking softly on the shore. Notice how the instrumental middle of “Julie With …” isn’t anything too special either (starting at the 2:34 mark), but listen closely to how the arpeggios were introduced and how it sticks around, barely bubbling underneath the surface of Brian Eno’s words (starting at the 2:02 mark). For lack of a better adjective to describe it, I’ll defer to CapnMarvel who called “Spider and I” “awesomely widescreen.” Yeah, that essentially captures it—I remember once, slowly coming off of hallucinogenics, staring across the calm of the lake to the trees on the otherside. “Spider and I” wholly reminds me of that one image. If this is what normal sounds like, I’ll take it.
It’s a damn shame Brian Eno turned his back on the pop world after this.
And no, producing U2 albums doesn’t count.