From the beginning, when he started lacing the spectacle of rock with ideas gleaned from outsider art, Brian Eno has been regarded as a sort of gnomic sage. It was that way when he was young and wild in the glammy early ’70s, and it’s certainly the case now that he’s quiet and restrained at 63, with a long and oft-cited scroll of aphorisms about music and the creative process rolled out behind him. It didn’t come as much of a shock, then, when news came down that his next album would be concerned with poetry by way of the ever-pregnant and sometimes dreadful mode of spoken word.
It might come as more of a shock — or maybe a pleasant surprise — to hear Drums Between the Bells is some of Eno’s best work in years. More guided and controlled than 2010′s Small Craft on a Milk Sea, Eno’s first solo album in five years (and inaugural move to the vaunted label Warp), Drums sounds somehow both austere and casual, like a strict hypothesis interested in wandering casually through experiments more than fixating over end results. “Bless This Space” opens with a sort of technoid jazzbo lilt, with Eno’s own voice intoning mysteriously over tons of drums, but the style of the album refracts considerably from there. “Glitch” features a blooping bassline and singed keys that evoke Eno’s production on the wildly rhythmic Talking Heads classic Remain in Light. “Pour It Out” pairs a gentle line-in guitar sound reminiscent of his early ambient period with more contemporary, live-sounding strings that add some drama and edge.
The words, all written by English poet Rick Holland and delivered by nine different voices, ripple in and out of view. They are mostly delivered by everyday people, not poets and musicians, and some of them are almost daringly plain-spoken, but most find a rich middle ground between matter-of-factness and abstraction, like stirring highlight “The Real,” which tries admirably to press down on what “meaning” really means while also floating atop a weightless musical girding reminiscent of the soundscapes on Eno’s (best) ambient album Apollo. “Really seeing the real,” the poetry contemplates, “describing the exact actuality of what it is you see, or what it is you seem to see, you really seem to see the real, the exact and actual reality of the real in things you seem to see, the real thing.” That seems to mean everything and nothing at once, and it sounds great all the while.