Is there any figure in rock history — even music as a whole, let’s say— more overdue for a critical analysis of his career than musician, producer, and artist Brian Eno? Is there any figure least suited to the conventions of a typical sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll biography? Most likely no, and, most definitely, yes.
Sadly, David Shepard’s bloated and, on the whole, drudging biography On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno tries to have it both ways and fails on both accounts.
The polymorphously talented Eno has been tremendously influential in the rock music world. After a short-lived early-’70s tenure as a synth player/backup singer in the glam/art rock band Roxy Music, the art-school graduate restlessly explored the most cutting edge synthesizers, tape-delays, and other new music technologies. His unconventional approach — relying heavily on theory rather than musical talent — led to deconstructed, electronic-leaning pop solo albums like Here Come the Warm Jets, and, later on, his self-proclaimed invention of “ambient music.”
Through these experiments and countless collaborations with musicians throughout the pop, rock, and avant-garde music worlds, he became what Shepard calls “an alchemical, Svengali-like conjuror of sonic worlds.” Thus, he’s most widely known for lending his unconventional production talent to quintessential albums by Talking Heads (Remain in Light), David Bowie (Low), and U2 (The Unforgettable Fire and Achtung Baby). To this day he continues a diverse, prolific career of art installations, political activism, solo albums, collaborations (Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, with David Byrne), and production work (Coldplay’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends).
Clearly Eno’s an interesting figure and worthy of examination. The trouble is, except for his well-known penchant for sex and the inevitable collaborative artistic friction, there’s precious little rock ‘n’ roll excess and mischief to keep the reader engaged over the book’s 439 pages. Shepherd’s analyses of individual albums and recording sessions work sufficiently well, but the overall story suffers. For someone so diversely accomplished, with so many projects going on at once, a “life and times” narrative approach does not come close to illustrating who he actually is.
Most problematic to the book, however, is Shepherd’s writing style. To his credit, he has clearly done exhaustive research, but the book continually gets bogged down in stodgy prose and mundane details. It makes for a long, slow read that anyone but the most hardcore Eno-phile will find difficult. Which is a shame, because there’s a lot here that rock fans would find fascinating.