Brian Eno/John Cale - Wrong Way Up
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The secret to Brian Eno’s genius is that his fondness for ephemera exceeds his egghead inclinations. Wrong Way Up, the wonderful quasi-pop record he recorded with John Cale in 1990, may seem wan compared to Another Green World or Fear, but give it a couple of spins and its recycled Middle Eastern melodies, nonsensical chants, and synthesized textures will have the same effect as chatting with a shallow but likable old friend: you don’t want to hang out with him every day, the better to savor the pleasure of frivolous chatter.
Wrong Way Up sounds as ageless as it did 14 years ago; it’s an amusing digression by both artists, never repeated, which is our loss. After a run of torpid albums burdened by increasingly unamusing affectations, John Cale must have realized that he needed a collaborator, and who better than Brian Eno, with whom he’d recorded two seminal mid 1970’s albums (Fear, Slow Dazzle) which served as the menacing id to the gentle superego of Eno’s own Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). For Eno, who’d years ago abandoned songform for ambient treacle, it was an opportunity to embrace the hidden pop star he never was, emboldened perhaps by wiping the sweat off Bono’s brow, a guy who knows something about boldness.
What an artificial album this is! Like a Marianne Moore poem or one of those Swiss cuckoo clocks, you’re aware of the cogs, its self-conscious artistry (if Wrong Way Up were in color, it’d be in pastels). Programmed rhythm beds, organs, violins, scratchy guitars—a song like “Lay My Love” is ideal tinker-toy music. Eno and Cale’s versions of Billboard’s Hot 100 singles sound like they were recorded by men who taped musical-box melodies instead of Janet Jackson hits (it’s 1990, remember). Wrong Way Up’s movement is not so much static as sporadic. Songs shimmer and skitter, then fade.
But Eno’s the star. For one, he has a flair for frivolity that the somber Cale always lacked. He also clashed with Cale over the final mixes: Cale felt he was being eased out of his own album. The credits suggest the experience ended in acrimony: Eno is listed as producer, as well as sole lyricist on four songs and co-composing credits on three; Cale himself gets only three songs. Whatever the truth, it’s hard to quibble with the results. Cale’s instrumental prowess and distinctive Welsh burr add weight to Eno’s sea of permutation, while Mr. Warm Jets’ treatments provide Cale’s whispery plaints with his most attractive settings in years.
Eno once said that nothing gave him greater pleasure (that word again) than providing harmonies. “One Word” is the gem, a track on which Eno and Cale’s double and triple-tracked vocals complement, conflict and interweave like two second-graders singing the Velvet Underground’s “Murder Mystery.” Its narrative is unclear, signified by the repeated line “we were miles and miles away”—a distance Eno and Cale’s voices attempt to bridge. “Spinning Away,” a pop song so flawless that Sugar Ray’s cover on The Beach soundtrack (Mark McGrath has never sounded so warm) is no pox, spins away on its own golden wheels. And on “The River,” recorded by Eno himself with a drum machine and strummed omnichord, rock music’s greatest non-singer French kisses rock music’s most confirmed skeptic and enjoys the experience so much they spoon themselves asleep.
Cale gets to sing Wrong Way Up’s closest approximation to a college-radio hit (the jaunty “Been There Done That”) and shore up his reputation as perhaps the ultimate sideman, which probably pisses him off as much now as when Lou Reed was telling him what to do. However, “Cordoba,” the first side closer, evokes the Cale creepiness of yore: a ballad of ravaged, weary grace, a bummer that reminds audiences just who is creating this otherwise enchanting inconsequence of an album.