Picking the best album by Brian Eno is like picking the best Tom Hanks film – there are so many brilliant ones to choose from you’ll never get a unanimous response. Not only has Eno had the audacity to stick his fingers in every musical pie imaginable over his career – art rock, world music, ambient, glam rock, to name but a few – he seems to be damn good at every single one. And this is the reason that Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) might just be his best album. While it wasn’t ground-breaking by his standards (meaning it would be revolutionary for most other musicians), it’s probably the closest thing to summing up his far-reaching career on a single album.
On the face of it, the album shouldn’t work. It should be a mish-mash of clashing ideas that don’t gel at all, a Frankenstein’s monster of an album. But under the watchful eye of Dr Eno, the ‘monster’ reveals itself to be a conceptual masterpiece. While there are underlying themes of communism and espionage spread across TTM(BS), the tracks are just as strong as individual entities. The bizarre down-and-up riff of Burning Airlines Gives You So Much More throws you in at the deep end of Eno’s psyche and the cryptic lyrics give you a reason to stay. Back in Judy’s Jungle is the perfect mix of silliness and menace with lyrics that evoke lines from Dad’s Army, complete with a military-style drumbeat and whistling to completely lampoon war.
The first stylistic change of the album is the minimalism of The Fat Lady of Limbourg. Eno’s mysterious, fairy-tale like narration makes it feel like a dream state, keeping you feeling slightly uncomfortable, but just engrossed enough not to want to wake up. Next comes Mother Whale Eyeless and The Great Pretender, two excellent cuts of dark and twisted art-rock, with the latter being just as unsettling as anything he’d done before. The melodies sound like they’ve been taken from a sci-fi B-movie and the industrial clanging only ratchets up the tension more. The song fades out over an absurdly long amount of time, probably to prepare the listener for the next song – the manic stream-of-consciousness punk barrage of Third Uncle – containing wonderful, absurdly meaningless lines like ‘There are tins, there was pork, there are legs, there are sharks’ and ‘Burn my fingers, burn my toes, burn my uncle, burn his books, burn his shoes, cook the leather, put it on me, does it fit me or you?’ After this extreme comes the other. Put a Straw Under Baby finds Eno recounting his own Grimm-esque nursery rhymes over a twinkling music box backdrop, with tales of internal organs on tables and chairs to scare you to sleep. The next two tracks, The True Wheel and China My China could fit perfectly onto his last album, Here Come the Warm Jets, although they add a nice touch of propulsion here after the lull(aby) of Put a Straw Under Baby. The final song, the semi-eponymous Taking Tiger Mountain, is a deceptively pretty and refined piano piece – one last surprise in this album full of tricks and treats.