By Jim DeRogatis
Brian Eno and Colin Newman are two of my favorite singers. Though neither is very good in the classical sense, both have in spades what it takes in the rock 'n' roll realm: character, chutzpah, and an endearing uniqueness. But you won't hear a peep from either of them on their new solo albums, even though both mark a slight return to rockier sounds--and not because they don't love the sound of their own voices. They've come to share the misguided notion that vocals are part of rock's dead past, and meandering electronic instrumentals its bright, bold future. "I originally sang on a few of the tracks, then made a conscious decision to take the vocals off," Newman explains in the press material for Bastard, echoing statements Eno's made in the past. "Vocal music can't help but be defined by the voice."
As Eno and Newman have spent a good part of the last few decades broadening the definition of rock, this twin case of tunnel vision is puzzling and a little distressing. After leaving Roxy Music in the early 70s, Eno broke new ground on four influential progressive rock albums, all with vocals. Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, and Before and After Science incorporated elements of free jazz and classical minimalism, crafted hooks with percussive instruments and out of nonmusical sounds, made the recording studio serve as an instrument, and highlighted what Eno called "harmonic stacks" of his own overdubbed voice--imagine a one-man Beach Boys. The lyrics didn't matter as much as the sound of his singing; he often sang nonsense syllables or turned to the word-generating techniques of dadaist poets Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters. Through the 80s, Eno was better known for his instrumental discs, which presaged the ambient genre, and a long list of innovative productions for artists such as David Bowie, the Talking Heads, and U2. But he started singing again on Wrong Way Up, his 1990 collaboration with John Cale, and he incorporated vocals on 1992's Nerve Net, which found him struggling to extend his old rock work via electronic dance music.
Newman has been almost as influential. The three albums he recorded as front man for Wire between 1977 and 1979 pointed the way from punk to new wave to the roots of what would become alternative. He nodded to Eno with his own ambient release (1981's Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish) and recorded four strong, vocally oriented solo albums before joining a reactivated Wire in 1986. (Alone among such reunited peers as Pere Ubu, the Buzzcocks, and the Sex Pistols, the group refused to play any old songs, recording and performing only new material until it once again disbanded in 1992.)
Like Eno, Newman never felt particularly constrained by the need for lyrics in his vocal music. Graham Lewis was the main lyricist in Wire, but on his own albums Newman took a cue from the beats, free-associating and choosing words as much for sound as meaning. A-Z (1980) and Not To (1982) built catchy rock songs out of unlikely elements, much like Eno's first four rock albums, and Commercial Suicide (1986) and It Seems (1988) were ambitious efforts that mixed sequenced grooves, minimalist instrumental parts, and distinctive vocal melodies.
By the early 90s, Eno and Newman both started subscribing to the idea that everything that could be done with the conventional rock song--the most prominent feature of which is often vocals--had been done. They came to view the sampling, sequencing, and programming of electronic dance music as more challenging than writing for other musicians, and intertwining rhythms as somehow more interesting than relationships between instrumental and vocal lines. Unfortunately, what they've done with these concepts on their latest albums is neither as vital as their previous work nor as progressive as what other, younger artists--many inspired by Eno and Newman--have accomplished within the same framework.
Last month Eno told the BBC that his new album, The Drop, is "what you might expect from sketchily describing modern jazz to a person who'd never heard it and who then forgot most of what you said and tried to play it anyway." He cited recently deceased Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti and the 70s recordings of the Mahavishnu Orchestra as his inspirations. (Though he didn't mention it, it's also obvious that he's been listening to a lot of drum 'n' bass.) But his descriptions of his new sounds--like the liner notes to his last solo record, 1993's extremely static Neroli--are much more interesting than the sounds themselves. Despite fanciful titles such as "Boomcubist" and "Rayonism," the 13 tracks on The Drop are aimless, boring, synth-driven jams. They lack Fela's strong melodies and the Mahavishnu's rhythmic drive, and they have neither the hypnotic qualities of Eno's best ambient music--Thursday Afternoon and On Land--nor the hookiness and emotional impact of Wrong Way Up.
Newman knows we expected him to sing on his first solo album in nine years, but always eager to thwart expectations, he gives us an extra-long finger on the cover of Bastard. The only voice we hear on any of the nine tracks is that of Malka Spigel, his wife and a former member of the dance-pop band Minimal Compact, and only on the closer, "Turn." Newman says in his press kit that he was inspired by the "postrock" bands on Chicago's Kranky and Thrill Jockey labels, in particular Tortoise. But what he really means is that he was prompted to include some organic sounds (mostly strings and skins) in his spacey ambient instrumentals. "When everyone started to get into Tortoise last year, the main challenge was to be able to listen to them 'real' drums again," Newman wrote me in a recent E-mail. "The way we figured it, the onus was on us to adjust our perceptions so that we could include that sound in our repertoire."
Too bad neither he nor Eno felt the onus to bring vocals into their updated repertoires as well. The voice is an instrument, and as with any other instrument, its limitations are in the mind of the user. The recent albums by The Sea and Cake and Jessamine, on the labels Newman says he admires, are two of many examples of new vocal music based on this thinking: The Fawn combines impressionist singing, sampled and sequenced sounds from all walks of music, and real-time playing to make inventive pop, and The Long Arm of Coincidence is a reminder that vocals don't have to be the most dominant thing in the mix of a rock song. Newman and Eno are cult heroes precisely because they never accepted any limitations. The bigger challenge for both would have been to incorporate the instruments that made them famous in their attempt to craft nonlinear, open-ended dance music. Instead, they shut their mouths and took the easy way out.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Brian Eno/ Colin Newman/ album covers photos.