Or, why a 60-minute album of hazy drones and piano is awesome

A Second Look: Brian Eno – Thursday Afternoon

Brian Eno

Thursday Afternoon

[Polydor; 1985]

Links: Brian Eno (Unofficial Site) | Polydor | Purchase on Insound

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Thursday afternoon, for most people, probably means you’re stuck at work or at school and are trying not to get too high-strung waiting for Friday. We seem to think that during the week between Sunday and Saturday, we have to have this insane pace set to work, coming and going from one crazed environment to another, even at home. How come? No one knows for certain, but it’s been coming to be for some that doing everything faster is not always better. As it started to become evident in the late 1970s and early 1980s to Brian Eno, something had to be done about it. He pondered this while stuck in bed, mending a broken leg from an accident, and thus being forced to deal with a record of 18th century harp music being played back in only one channel of his stereo, at a very low volume. Oddly enough, this did not annoy him. Instead, it caused him to rethink music in a way he had not before, even considering his previous avant-garde exploits in art school. He found it incredibly soothing, noticing that the music coming out was – instead of taking hold of his attention – blending itself into the environment. Not too long later, he released Discreet Music on his label Obscure Music in 1975, with an accompanying essay on how this music was meant to be listened to. It was the beginning of an odyssey that Eno would explore in between his many other projects in the years to come and beyond.

By 1985, Eno had released several albums under the genre he created – ambient music. These included the four albums released under the “Ambient” banner, the wonderful Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, and Music For Films. Each seemed like a stepping stone to the next, exploring a certain concept. Music For Airports was designed specifically for being played in airports for calming the nerves of passengers awaiting the next flight out, while On Land explored the idea of using the techniques laid down in the former to create soundscapes; that is to say, music that is related to a sense of place, even if that place and the moods it evokes only exist as a recording. For someone looking for new possibilities in music, this was already very exciting stuff – but where was it all going? That answer arrived in the compact disc, Thursday Afternoon.

I originally heard about Eno and his ambient works in the book Generation Ecstasy by Simon Reynolds. The book covered the trends and evolution of the sound of the electronic dance scenes in the US and England, with specific sections on what was dubbed “ambient house” and “chill out” by Reynolds, which covered groups like Alex Paterson’s The Orb. Also pointed out was that the ideas behind these sub-genres were partially rooted in the music of Eno, specifically on such albums as Music For Airports and Thursday Afternoon. I had never heard of him before, but I knew of The Orb already thanks to that incredibly psychedelic Volkswagen Beetle commercial that had “Little Fluffy Clouds” as the soundtrack. I was hungry for more, and my library had Thursday Afternoon available for checkout.

Like most teenagers who were used to hearing something “rock” – or least having a kind of beat and rhythm structure – I was at first confused by this album. For starters, it seemed incredibly repetitive, even for someone like me who was used to the repetitions present in electronic music at the time. It also had no defining structure; the first sound you hear when you put it on is not an attack but a fade. The idea that a sound has a beginning, middle and an end is demolished, just within the first three seconds of the album. The only real noticeable “music” was piano being played, soaked in so much reverb and delay that it was barely recognizable, the other sounds being this gentle, impossibly slow washing of synthesized sounds being incredibly static. I was curious, though, and I stuck with it despite not fully understanding what the hell was going on. Eventually, I began to break it down in my thoughts and realized I was listening to something incredible and beautiful. What made it so was something that would not occur to me until several years later.

Part of my initial misunderstanding of what was going on was that Eno’s ambient works were not very well known outside of certain groups (New Agers, as it turned out, as well as music critics like Reynolds, and I suppose also hipsters). As a result, I was incredibly limited in my choices at the library, and the only title of Eno’s in this style that was available for me for quite sometime was Thursday Afternoon. Also as a result of it being from the library, I had no liner notes to work with as the CD booklet was trashed by previous patrons. Last but not least, I had such a limited knowledge of ideas concerning sound, such as loud sound vs. quiet sound, and that recorded sound could represent something like a certain time and place, that I honestly had no idea what I was listening to. All I knew for certain was that it was very pretty music that was good for sleeping to, which I imagined was why people like Alex Paterson held it in high regard in the chill-out rooms across the pond in England.

Now older and more well-read, not to mention being able to finally listen to Eno’s previous ambient works thanks to Virgin/Astralwerks making the effort to reissue his entire catalog and read those accompanying essays of his, I understand the real genius behind this brilliant album. Eno, through his background as a British art student inspired by John Cage and the possibilities of recorded and manipulated sound, created the penultimate ambient recording in Thursday Afternoon. Now playing the compact disc in my stereo opens my mind to this fantastic sonic environment that exists outside of spacetime. Yet, despite being created in such an artificial way via a recording studio at the hands of Eno and his team of collaborators and engineers, the music sounds incredibly warm, soft and natural. It is also deceiving, in that should one turn up the volume, suddenly the level of complexity in the layers of sound increases. The louder volume acts as a great revealer, bringing out bird calls, the wonderfully subtle shifting of the underlying synthesized strings, these utterly massive bass sounds that ooze slowly with the thickness of syrup, and of course the dreamy haziness that perpetuates the other-worldliness of it all.

Then, there is the unbelievably clever title. It evokes not a hectic world of speed and raw nerves, but rather a fantastically calm day that may have happened for real or perhaps only existed in the listener’s mind. In whatever world the “Thursday Afternoon” of the album exists, it is a lazy, gorgeous place and time that we can somehow relate to and remember, even if we never experienced it ourselves before. It taps into the fuzzy logic of nostalgia and suggestive memory, as well as tapping into the imagination, perhaps even the unconscious. The result is wonderfully relaxing as our minds are taken somewhere that is not perpetually under attack by loud sound, fast-moving images and nearly unbearable stresses.

In the end, what is here is what I feel is Eno’s most successful attempt at presenting his ambient ideas and ideals in the form of recorded music. It not only opens the doors for ideas of sound being used to relax and remind us to make some time to smell the roses, but other ideas about the possibilities of a world beyond our physical realms that can be explored with music and sound. And yet, why is this not being championed in the higher levels of art? How come we still have the lame corporate pop-rock and adult aontemporary being pumped into our ears whenever we go to the mall and supermarket? Despite being over twenty years old now, this album is still considered too avant-garde to the public, and too non-standard for institutions to teach. Hopefully now with his involvement in the Long Now Foundation, a group created to “to provide counterpoint to today’s ‘faster/cheaper’ mind set and promote ‘slower/better’ thinking,” more and more people will be coming around the world as presented in Thursday Afternoon, an album of hazy drones and piano that rocks.