The reissue of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts presents a quandary from a critical standpoint. It can be argued that the album is challenging, avant-garde, ahead of its time, blah, blah blah. Does it even matter if it’s any good? (It is, by the way.)
One of the great difficulties of reviewing Eno (or Byrne for that matter) is attempting to place value upon his albums in a historical/technical context without coming across as sterile, academic. Once listened to through the prism of already accumulated knowledge of the artist, Eno’s music has a bizarre invariable tendency of petrifying and becoming an exhibit of tape loops, found sound, and hermetically sealed studio wizardry. Nobody knowingly dances to Brian Eno.
While bald vegans can put out feel-good party records that get licensed out indiscriminately to car commercials, Eno and Byrne have been held to different standards throughout their careers, and such is how Ghosts is revisited. I almost have no choice but to use a bunch of ten-dollar words, armchair sociology, and historical rigmarole to potentially marginalize a very funky, possibly accessible album into the relative obscurity that I secretly prefer. Rock critics are nothing if not territorial.
The year is 1979. Eno, six years removed from Roxy Music, fresh off of his work with Bowie and Tony Visconti, was in the midst of establishing himself as the secret fifth member of the Talking Heads, having produced both More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978) and Fear of Music (1979). In the interim, before going on to create their masterstroke, 1980’s Remain in Light, Eno and Talking Heads frontman Byrne began to toy with the idea of creating an album of fabricated “field recordings,” essentially documenting the music of a culture that never existed.
Indeed, the music itself seductively hints at a greater purpose: snippets of feverish sermons, Arabic wails, and talk-show babble assert themselves over the intermittently droning and spry compositions. Before the advent of everyday samplers and personal computers, Eno and Byrne created these sound collages through fortuitous musical intuition, the merger of two disparate elements into an arresting sound collage.
Although the finished product no longer had a cohesive thematic element, it’s hard to argue with the album’s success both as an immediate listen and as a key influence in Western artists’ interpretation of dance and world music. Eno and Byrne had already proven themselves pioneers of experimentation, and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts appears to have planted all sorts of seeds that have sprouted and flourished throughout the years that followed, from the development of Byrne’s own Luaka Bop label to the proliferation of found-sound sampling used as artistic expression, a development that begs far more analysis than can be elaborated upon here.
It is borderline impossible to dissociate the historical and technical underpinnings of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts from the album itself; this in spite of the fact that the songs sound as modern and fresh as if they were recorded last year. The decision to reissue Ghosts ostensibly stems from viewing it as a seminal recording. If a byproduct of this involves more people having a chance to listen to the album, so much the better.
Nonesuch Records Web site