Let’s play a little word association game. I say “song,” you say … melody? Harmony? Lyrics? Instrumental support?
Not necessarily. Brian Eno and David Byrne have re-released and remastered their epic 1981 recording “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” an album whose individual tracks can only be considered songs in the broadest definition of the word. The duo has done everything but exchange intelligence for innovation; their awe-inspiring recordings confound the listener, questioning all conventions in music and the art of song-making itself.
When Eno and Byrne first began working on the album in 1979, they flirted with the idea of making a “series of recordings based on an imaginary culture … and try to pass it off anonymously as the genuine article,” as Byrne writes in his liner notes. They eventually moved on from this idea, although many cultural elements permeate the colorful record, turning instead to consistently randomized vocals in order to string the album together.
It would be incorrect to label any of the words incorporated into the tracks as “lyrics.” Eno and Byrne have chosen to pair their funky electronica with a wide variety of vocals ranging anywhere from moralizing preachers to ranting radio talk-show hosts, as the natural cadence of their voices possess an innate musicality. “A Secret Life” pairs Arabic chants with the haunting plucking of a guitar and the cautious tapping of cymbals, all evoking a mysterious tribal feel. “The Jezebel Spirit,” one of the album’s most thrilling tracks, is a charged dance number overlaid with the sermonizing of a radio evangelist.
Throughout “Bush of Ghosts,” the play with language and vocals is mirrored by the flexibility and inventiveness of the supporting instruments. Eno and Byrne have chosen to substitute kick drums with cardboard boxes, snare drums with biscuit tins, and rhythm instruments with bass guitars. Although this results in each track sounding somewhat disagreeable, it creates an exotically refreshing sound. Where most other artists wouldn’t be able to pull off such eclectic strains, Eno and Byrne excel, and with sophistication at that.
Similarly, the energizing quality of the record is furthered by the coupling of seemingly arbitrary melodies and remixed tracks. Eno and Byrne’s improvised layering of vocal loops over foundational beats gives the album a wonderfully organic playfulness. While making the album, the duo randomly paired found vocals with experimental instrumentation, keeping what sounded good, and nixing what didn’t. It’s this kind of avant-garde undertaking that makes Eno and Byrne as groundbreaking today as they were 25 years ago. The artists’ synergy is remarkable — Eno’s uniquely eccentric pop complements Byrne’s multi-rhythms and cacophonous guitar.
This remastered edition also includes seven bonus tracks not included on the original ’81 version. These extras, while developing the album’s overall story line, push the boundaries of welcome novelty into unnecessary terrain. The solitary strumming of a guitar on “Solo Guitar With Tin Foil” rounds out the disc (with ample breathing room), allowing the listener to absorb its winding purrs while reflecting on the tour-de-force of the previous seventeen tracks. Absent from the new disc, however, is the track “Qu’ran” which included readings from the Qu’ran, but received complaints from a Muslim organization.
True to the disc’s emphasis on serendipity and experimentation, Eno and Byrne have also set up a Web site to accompany the release of “Bush Ghosts.” On this site, found at www.bushofghosts.wmg.com, visitors have complete access to all the original tracks with remix and sampling possibilities. After logging into the site, users are welcome to edit, remix and sample the songs to suit their fancy. Visitors are also welcome to post their mixes on the site for everyone to hear and critique.
And in that spirit, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” is not impressive because of the overwhelming beauty of each of the individual tracks but rather, for the elemental innovation used to create each song. The disc is a true testament to the power of imagination and experimentation, as well as the incredible music that can result from tremendous bravery.