Brian Eno and John Cale

Wrong Way Up (Warner Bros 1990)

It took quite a long time for me to appreciate this one. It’s the most middlebrow, mature and accessible release by either gentleman and those three adjectives weren’t exactly the most endearing to me when I initially immersed myself in their respective discographies long ago.  I foolishly looked at the 1990 release date and the garish cover art and never gave Wrong Way Up its due since it sounded a bit slick and lacking in the drifting stasis of 70s Eno or the unsettling, orchestral gravitas of Cale’s early string of solo albums. I wanted them to be obtuse and challenging, but that was my shortcoming because these two brilliant musicians had mellowed and now traveled along a different pathway than those that inspired their colorful origin. This was their attempt at a pop album and I now see the beauty and mastery that lurked behind its superficially slick sheen.

Wrong Way Up opens with the familiar strain of Cale’s viola playing on “Lay My Love” as Eno croons a cosmic yarn about the inherent power of love to transcend time and space. It’s a sentimentally hippie sentiment couched in cyberpunk imagery and its somehow touching despite the revulsion I feel at tying those two disparate genres together in one untidy knot. It’s a perfect synthesis of their musical outlooks as Cale’s viola lends it a stately grace to counteract the clunky electro-pop of Eno. It’s kind of like the pop songs on Another Green World with an orchestral bent. That’s a quite a combo in my book.

“One Word” was the commercially released single from Wrong Way Up and there is no way in hell that it ever had a chance at the top 40. My snarky cynicism isn’t due to poor quality control, but because it is way too bright, witty and impressionistic to ever capture the imagination of the dullards of our imperfect universe. This song is like a microcosm of the album as the two men trade stanzas establishing competing viewpoints as one argues for the power of words to derail any sense of camaraderie in this combative world while the other paints an idealistic picture of a world where words have the power to unite us all under the same banner. For some reason, this setting for this existential debate skips from the Louvre to Cologne and drops allusions to oil paintings by Welsh painter Augustus John, but these idiosyncrasies are what make this such a lovably unlikely stab at commercialism. It’s just another reason why I believe Wrong Way Up belongs in the same discussion as Cale and Eno’s accepted classics when you take a long listen to it and pay attention to the little eccentricities that define it.

“Empty Frame” is a head scratcher in the best possible way as Eno tries his hand at melding his 70s pop aesthetic to 50s pop music as the song rises and falls on a wave of “whoa, whoa whoas” like he’s aiming for some stoned, avant-garde take on “Runaround Sue.”  It sounds so uplifting, but listen closely and the song is really about a crew of unwitting sailors headed towards their demise by a clueless captain as they are slowly driven insane looking for signs of safety and survival. It’s a saccharine sweet tune laced with a tale full of arsenic. Again, these contradictions and literary flourishes are the lifeblood of Wrong Way Up and explain why a cursory listen is destined to obscure the brilliance that lies under its surface.

What would an album full of contradictions and idiosyncrasies be without a oddball honky-tonk number by John Cale?  “Crime in the Desert” tackles familiar country and western themes of women in love with broken hearted souls, tumbling dice and murder in the murky moonlight. However, Cale’s rollicking piano playing is juxtaposed over Eno’s enthusiastic bleeps and it somehow takes on a post-modern flair of its very own. It’s a bizarre, yet infectious twist on Americana that tweaks familiar themes and makes it into something wholly unique that could only be created by these two weathered crackpots.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Just because it is rarely mentioned in the same hallowed breath as Paris 1919 or Here Come the Warm Jets doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pour yourself a glass of wine and get very familiar with Wrong Way Up. It is the most poetic and literary effort by both men and boasts some of their best lyrical work. Yes, the production kind of mucks things up a bit when you approach it as a backseat listener, but Wrong Way Up is the sound of two geniuses navigating their way through their middle ages and pondering love, life and mortality in their own peculiar way.