There can’t be many terms in the rock’n’roll lexicon that have come under such sustained critical attack as ‘chillout’. Maybe it’s the connotations of the ‘chillout room’ in a club, where people used to go to snog desultorily or sleep off their drug intake in the days when they still went to clubs and, indeed, such clubs existed. The music played there was quieter, swirlier and more ambient than mainstream dance music, although still loud enough to drown out the snores. It soon emerged that people liked listening to such music in hours of daylight as well, careering off the fast lane of the M40 into an adjacent tree as their eyelids drooped for the very last time. And so was born the idea of the chillout compilation, usually two 75-minute CDs full of soothing but nonetheless groovy tunes guaranteed to ease stress and lower the heart rate to a mere notch above cryogenic sleep.
Like many people I bought several of these compilations, each of which had at least one Dido song on it. And the one they used for the Kronenbourg ad. And ‘Porcelain’ by Moby. They all stare down from my CD shelf still, mocking me for buying them when I could have used the money for something more sensible, like buying my children food.
But isn’t there something to be said for quiet music? The visceral thrill of playing your favourite loud tunes at possibly illegal volume is hard to beat (my current favourite being a track from Todd Rundgren’s most recent album, his best in decades) but surely it’s a bit babyish to decry quiet music simply for not being loud enough. Jazz musicians know that the spaces between notes are often more interesting than the notes themselves: it’s a lesson pop music learns with difficulty and forgets at the earliest opportunity.
And so I find a lot of the music I have been playing recently could easily fall, if pushed, into the category of ‘chillout’ music. Like my brother, you may not like it if you listen only to loud music, not least because you won’t be able to hear it.
Old Mr Ambient, needless to say, is the first stop. Brian Eno’s Another Day On Earth (Hannibal/Opal) is his first vocal album since 1990’s John Cale collaboration Wrong Way Up and only his second since the Seventies. Apparently, Eno got bored with writing songs and instead spent many years investigating ambient soundscapes, with variable results. I once heard his classic Music For Airports playing in Heathrow, and it sounded perfect, swooshing and washing over our sweaty economyseated carcasses just when we needed it most (on the four-mile walk to passport control). But on record I barely listen to it once a decade.
The best by far of these records is Apollo, which was commissioned in 1984 as a soundtrack to a documentary about the moon missions, and is breathtakingly beautiful (and Eno’s highest seller, apparently, so there is some justice, after all). Another Day On Earth is a more modern record than either of these — it’s more layered and ‘finished’ than Eno fans are perhaps used to — but it, too, features some sublime music, playing artfully with rhythms and textures and creating something new out of the same old stuff. It’s not quite of the standard of his 1977 masterpiece Before And After Science, but then what is? Everyone thinks of Eno as producer, guru and egghead, but he’s a terrific songwriter, too, and an underrated singer. He has said that there’s nothing in the world that can’t be improved by oysters or backing vocals, and I’m inclined to agree.
Eno, in his late fifties, is comfortably into the second half of his career; the Norwegian duo Riiyksopp are at the beginning of theirs. Melody A.M., their debut of a couple of years back, was an exceptional pop album, in that it sounded wonderful straight away and then offered up more and more pleasures with every subsequent listening. Svein Berge and Torbjiirn Brundtland are in some ways typical dance-music boffins — diffident, not very good hair, suspiciously wacky sense of humour — but the wild invention and subtle dynamics of their music are not typical at all. The Understanding (Wall of Sound/Virgin) retains their signature sound — a looser Air with added Kraftwerk — and features more good tunes than you’d hear in a week of Radio One. And some of it is awesomely, boldly, crazily quiet. Listen and enjoy.