Lux is Michael Jordan doing a layup on an empty court; it’s Tiger Woods playing a par-3 hole; it’s Mario Batali making a cheese pizza. In other words, it’s a master of his craft going back to the basics. Over the course of its 75 minutes Brian Eno revives the placid minimalism of earlier favorites like Music For Airports, Apollo – Atmospheres & Soundtracks, Thursday Afternoon, and Neroli. Gentle, glassy piano and synth tones are accented by graceful and unobtrusive guitar and string accompaniment. He subtly transmutes harmonic phrases and allows fragments of melody to wander the listening space like tiny, rudderless boats on a gray-blue pond. The only guiding rhythmic principle here is that of patience. There’s also a bit of pastoral romanticism here–a notion bolstered by the autumnal, arboreal cover art–especially in the ivory keys that call to mind Eno’s collaborations with Harold Budd on Ambient 2: Plateaux of Mirror and The Pearl. The interplay between these drops of piano and the stretched-out violins and violas work to create a deep and texturally engaging experience.
Lux is divided into four sections but it might as well be a single track. The first portion is guided by piano, whereas the second seems slightly more indebted to guitar; still, differences like these strike me more as movements within a broader conceptual arc, the ebb and flow of Eno’s musical tides. Like Steve Roach’s seminal Structures Before Silence, there’s an almost fairytale-like quality to this music; like a bedtime story read to a child falling asleep, this music lingers at the fringes of our subconscious, only occasionally brushing up against the “active listening” parts of our brains. There’s also something that seems intangibly live about Lux; though I doubt this is actually the case, it sounds like it’s being played and recorded in real time, organically unfolding rather than fastidiously assembled from disparate studio elements.
Like 1997’s Lightness, Lux began as a location-dependent installation; according to Warp, it “evolved from a work currently housed in the Great Gallery of the Palace of Venaria in Turin, Italy.” But just like the underrated Lightness, this album offers appropriate ambience for all kinds of settings; I can see it being equally effective as home listening and as background music for reading, school or work assignments, and (as I can confirm from personal experience) napping. Saying that a work is great for falling asleep to might seem like a backhanded compliment, but like the best ambient music, Lux admirably bridges the gap between conscious listening and unconscious appreciation. I’d like to listen to this album next time it rains; I imagine the pitter-patter of water droplets hitting my bedroom window would only enhance this music’s quietude. Crucially, Lux isn’t sedentary; though far from tense, it does sometimes approach a precipice of unseen action, as though it were either leading up to some distant and imaginary climax or serving as the aural afterglow of some previous and unheard shock. Take the conspicuously low-pitched piano at the start of the third portion, which adds a bit of gravity to the otherwise unassuming tones and sighs that dominate this album’s landscape. It’s not foreboding, mind you; an otherwise sunny day is not blemished by the intermittent cumulus cloud drifting past our view of the sun. But it does remind us that even at its most seemingly tranquil, there is indeed movement happening here, albeit glacial and cyclical. Like the tree on its cover, Lux appears to be standing still, yet it’s very much alive.
Some will complain that Lux offers nothing new or special from Mr. Eno, and it’s true that sonic innovation isn’t the focus here. Sometimes, however, a return to rudimentary forms can be cathartic and rewarding in its own right; besides, Eno may be a veteran of this game, but he’s also still one of its most skillful players. We didn’t need further proof that Eno is a masterful ambient music maker, but here we are anyway. Best to sit back and bask in the confident warmth of a job well done.