Brian Eno and David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981)
WORDS || Jack Cameron Stanton
Where to begin with this record? Eno and Byrne find the sweet spot between atmospheric experimentalism and Talking Heads-esque funk, creating an album that is cyclonic, beautiful, danceable (at times), melancholic, fractured, and atomised all at once.
It’s easy to overlook now, but in 1981 My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was a revolution. It dared to infuse world music elements, samples, and alternative rock – something unheard of at the time. These days, of course, this is no surprise. But I suspect that incredible records, such as The Avalanche’s Since I Left You, are forever indebted to the inspirations of Eno and Byrne.
As a whole this record works in two parts: the A-Side is groovier and admittedly an easier, at least more familiar, listen, while the B-Side embraces an avant-garde ambience, in which driving funk rhythms and well-loved guitar riffs are diminished in exchange for an electronic spaciness.
For me, ‘Regiment’ is a stand out tune. Out of all the songs it seems to be the most fitting representation of the haunting ghost theme sprinkled throughout the soundscapes, juxtaposing funky bass and drums that drive the rhythm perpetually forward with soaring, Lebanese vocals. Top it off, of course, with an Arabia-inspired psychedelic guitar riff, and Eno and Byrne execute an outrageously mesmeric song. Moving right along: if you didn’t know, ‘The Jaezebel Spirit’ seems like just another clever, thickly layered alternative rock song, until the sample vocals become more present – and even then their nature and origin are tough to pinpoint. They could be militant, but then again, the reverb sounds like an echoing megaphone . . . But as you listen carefully it crystallises: you are listening to an exorcism. Once this knowledge settles in, a pretty, melodic tinkering of keys splatter across the song and create an airy crescendo, which is complemented by synths that dive in and out. It almost feels like an apology for the darkness. ‘Help Me Somebody’ sounds like Byrne’s handiwork, and it would be easy to consider it a straight up funk rock song, if it wasn’t for the sample of a preacher’s haunting, emphatic yells over the top, which, impossibly, seem to bolster its frantic energy.
But as the record progresses, Byrne’s signature Talking Heads style – things like funky, frantic guitar riffs – disappear, and are replaced by a more dominant, electronic Eno atmosphere. Closing tracks ‘Come With Us’ and ‘Mountain of Needles’ testify to this shift in tone. However, I don’t think this change is a symptom of identity crisis, nor does it ruin or confuse. Instead it reinvigorates the record, offering not only an aural reprieve from some of the stranger, more challenging songs, such as ‘Regiment’ or ‘The Jaezebel Spirit’, but ends with a great sense of longing, with you, the listener, wanting to start the record all over again.
I can’t fault the masters at work. You’ve gotta listen to this record.
Review – Anthony Larbalestier
I’ll be honest and upfront, from the outset, I was quite excited to listen to the album being a big fan of other productions from Talking Heads and Brian Eno. I listened to the album with the intention to really like the album, more so than normal.
If I had to describe the album, I was say it is eccentric, funky and experimental. The album is characterised by interesting and strange vocals, strong and at times jarring drums and funky guitar rifs. A vast majority of the tracks on the album have some sort of incoherent experimental vocal featuring as the main element in the song. An example is what seems to be Arabic prayers in the track “The Carrier”, just one of many interesting vocal samples used in the album. The vocals add a nice depth and interest to the songs and are probably the most interesting parts of the songs.
The album delivers on being interesting, there are plenty of great sounds from a variety of sources too hard to determine (listen to track “Come With Us” and you will get what I mean). The guitar and percussion instruments is also a strong enjoy and what I would call a mix between experimental and alternate rock, the way only two outstanding but strange producers could. “Regiment” is the track with ties together all the best elements of the album into one song and is by far the standout.
That being said, at times the vocals draw the attention from the other elements and instruments in the songs and to me the album at times feels a little unstructured and a little too experimental. Overall it is a good album but not 100% my taste. I enjoyed listening but it doesn’t make it into the favourites. For that reason, I give it a 4/5
Review – Nicolas Nalbandian
Spawn of the creative juices of two of art-pop icons from the late 20th century, my initial expectation would be that the reality could never live up to the expectation. But wait, that seems to not give Brian and David enough cred- maybe the whole could be greater than the sum of its parts?
The tone is set with off-kilter jam ‘America is Waiting’, demonstrating a near-perfect meeting of their individual styles. Byrne’s layered, rolling songwriting technique is complemented by Eno’s sound-art impulses and impeccable production. Pulsing synths, spoken word and sampled vocals continue to combine throughout ‘Mea Culpa’ for impossibly cool vibez all round. And it would be hard to forget – even after first listen – the slow grooves slipped under smooth Arabesque vocals and 70’s guitar soloing of ‘Regiment’.
Dave-o gives the album a welcome high-bpm injection on ‘Help Me Somebody’, returning to an upbeat, percussive tune in familiar territory for any Talking Heads fans. ‘The Jezebel Spirit’ doesn’t disappoint with a similar revisiting of Dave’s layered guitar riffs
Laid back grooves with an experimental slant carry the album from ‘Very, Very Hungry’ to ‘Come with Us’. At this point, I’m finding it hard to fault the album after ten classy tunes straight. I feel dirty as I confess the fade-outs used to end songs disappoint – you could argue its a stylistic choice but it just feels a little lazy. Gimme a definitive ending on some of your songs pls.
Mountain of Needles caps of the album as a borderline ambient outro, a reminder in 2016 that this album came just 3 years after Eno’s watershed ‘Ambient 1’ and a year before ‘Ambient 4’. Not knocking either of these guys, especially Eno who has been relentlessly pursuing a variety of projects since (let’s forget about that James Blake collab ‘Digital Lion’), but it seems a shame that artists often stagnate after such a fruitful period. Can’t knock this album for that though.