Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Warp Records)
1/2 (out of five)

A lot has been made of presentation and pretense with Brian Eno’s latest release, Small Craft on a Milk Sea. It is worth noting that this is Eno’s first release with electronic label du juir, Warp Records; and in honor of their first collaboration, the physical product is anything but a jewel-cased CD, however, once you’re clear of the pomp and circumstance, what is most important is that Brian Eno has produced more music.
Easily one of the most significant composers and performers of the 20th century (dude wrote the Microsoft start-up tune!), and one of the most consistently interesting ever, Eno has certainly made mistakes (plenty). However, he has rarely wandered into the same, safe territory as other aging legends who trot out revisions of prior greatness or partake in vain attempts to recapture youth.
One way Eno has largely avoided this has been constructing strong concepts for his projects. This is where Small Craft suffers. The concept is so vague and wishy washy that it makes room for just about anything. The album is horribly fractured and only intermittent sections reach levels we can fairly expect from Eno and Co.
The opening pieces, “Emerald and Lime” and “Complex Heaven” are a nice compliment to one another. “Emerald” is swelling, orchestral ambient where “Heaven’s” meditative mood is backed by a wonderfully lilting acoustic guitar part. The build over the first six tracks, in fact, is really impressive. Each successive piece adds emotional or sonic heft, as though the album is, track by track, building toward a dramatic climax. And if the sixth track, “Two Forms of Anger” were the climax, this would be one hell of an EP from the trio. However, after the awesome guitar work-out and the glitchy, swishy backdrops it rails against on “Two Forms,” Milk Sea begins to unspool.
It’s as though Eno, Hopkins and Abrahams were charged with creating scores for three films and just mixed their arrangements up. There are occasional reprises and call backs to prior pieces, but it’s rare that the remaining 10 tracks (!) bear any relation to the first 6 or themselves. This may as well be a collection of singles.
At it’s finest, Small Craft on a Milk Sea could be one hell of an audition tape, showing Eno’s range and the collaborative abilities of Hopkins and Abrahams. But the album’s lack of focus has you careening from ambient, to house, to skronky pseudo-free jazz. Many successes in those genres are rewarding because an artist plumbs the depths of the sounds, emotions, and energies each respective discipline offers, rather than glancing off various sounds without really embracing any one idea or sound. Maybe Eno wants so badly not to be thought of as old he’s refusing to sit still.