It would be wrong to call Brian Eno a blank slate, but the tenor of his output in the least 30 years, and in some ways throughout his entire career, has been largely influenced by his choice of collaborator. Starting with his monumental work with Robert Fripp on 1975's No Pussyfooting, Eno's oeuvre has been increasingly defined by his partnerships, so much so that he's only released one proper solo album in the last 10 years—compared to six collaborative efforts.
Paired with years of celebrated production work, his role in defining Bowie's best period, a lingering legacy as the mad genius behind Roxy Music, and his stellar work with David Byrne and John Cale, Eno stands out as one of music's best sidekicks, a probing mind who takes a backseat even when he's doing most of the work. On Drums Between the Bells, he chose poet Rick Holland as his cohort, establishing a divided words-and-music relationship where Eno's compositions are fashioned into collages around Holland's poems.
The concept of collaboration is extended even farther here: The words aren't delivered by Holland or Eno, but assigned to others, from actress Caroline Wildi to a woman they purportedly met on the street outside the recording studio. These voices read in various degrees of monotone flatness, and they work beautifully under the flow of the music, like rocks resting in a limpid stream. The gentle relationship between Eno's soundscapes and Holland's poetry reaches its peak on "A Title," where a woman's accented voice wrestles with harsh factory sounds and a few strummed chords, until both give way to a drifting electronic elegy.
Like many of Eno's projects, Drums Between the Bells skips around fitfully off a loose central theme, leaving room for big stylistic gaps and a little bit of dead space. The often lifeless line readings and the multitude of voices, which repeatedly drop out for long sections of songs, make this feel less like an album than a weird aural art project. Yet it's hard to think of many works with such a wide-ranging and anonymous field of voices. In many cases, like on the black intonations of opener "Bless This Space," with the slow, measured delivery of each word, these voices set the tone, but in line with Eno's usual restiveness, they often continue after the poem has ended, folding back over themselves. Sometimes, as on the gradual build of "The Real," the album's longest track, Eno digitizes and toys with his guest's voices, but for the most part, they're left whole and undisturbed, echoing beacons beneath a sea of electronic textures.