I can never quite catch hold of The Pearl. I have listened to this album more times than I can safely count, and yet somehow each time I put it on I feel as if I have never heard it before. I’m not complaining; I’m in awe.
Most albums, if played enough, wear themselves into ruts in your mind the way an LP’s needle furrows out the groove it rides in. I could easy go the rest of my life without ever listening to most of the Led Zeppelin catalog, no thanks to radio airplay turning it all into a giant musical cinder. But The Pearl never seems to get old, in big part because I can never quite nail it down. I listen, I turn away, I listen again, and I feel a whole new album has emerged where the previous one was.
What is strangest is how so much seems to come from so little. The album is a collaboration between Brian Eno (of Music for Films and so much more) and pianist Harold Budd. Also present is producer (and instrumentalist) Daniel Lanois, a longtime collaborator with Eno, composer of film sountracks, and with a list of production credits to envy: U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Sinéad O’Connor. Between the three of them they create an album that barely even seems to be there, and yet every one of the tiny gestures made on this record — and it’s a record made of nothing but tiny gestures — registers with total clarity and weight of purpose.
Budd’s piano playing forms the spine of every track on the record. I say “spine” because it feels vertical, not horizontal. It’s not a line that we march across from beginning to end, but rather a core from which all the other elements of the track emanate. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a shimmering ocean of echo created by the piano (“A Stream with Bright Fish”); sometimes it’s interplay between the foreground and background elements (“Dark-Eyed Sister”); and sometimes it’s what everything else in the track dissolves back into, or maybe rises to claim it for its own (“An Echo of Night”). The title track strips down everything except for the piano, just as I imagined it ought to.
The Pearl was released before labels like “new age” or “ambient” became synonymous with rubbishy Windham Hill or “Music For Massage” compilations, but it’s hard for some people to listen to it — or many of the other founding records of its kind — without associating it with all that other terrible music. It’s the same phenomenon that made Hitchcock’s Psycho so difficult for some audiences to watch without giggling: their formative experiences had been with the derivate, the parody, the third-hand product. When they encounter the original, the shock of the new is missing. It takes a certain degree of training to allow yourself to experience the original as it was intended, to push aside the weight of the very culture created by the original.
Most people aren’t inclined to do this, which is scarcely a failing on their part: it’s difficult, and the rewards of doing so are not always obvious. But the original always has the chance to speak for itself provided the right audience is listening. With casual music appreciation more prevalent than ever, with Spotify and MP3 download services abounding, maybe we are more suited now than we were before to hear something with fresh ears. We make it easier to not only rediscover the past but hear it in context, to place it against the music it accompanied at the time and hear it as it might have been first heard. The Pearl was released in 1984, when Prince’s Purple Rain — or maybe more to the point, the Cocteau Twins’s Treasure or This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End In Tears — were also just out, so I’m sure The Pearl sounded all the more unlike anything else going on musically at the time.
With many works I am reminded of a statement attributed to Miles Davis: “I always listen for what to leave out.” This album is one great creative act of leaving out.