Atmospheres and soundtracks

Lunar surface detail

A few weeks ago the world marked the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. When I was a child, 25 years ago, landing on the moon not only seemed cool — it seemed like a totally normal expectation.

25 years on, my feelings are more mixed.

Austin Kleon collected some materials from people who were ahead of the curve, and were unimpressed even in 1969.

One thing I haven’t changed my mind about is the brilliant Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks by Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno.

It was made for the documentary For All Mankind. The film had such a difficult gestation that it didn’t come out until six years after the album did.

It is a project of the 1980s. As someone who was born after both the moon landing and the recording of this album, the music feels like it’s from a totally different era to the 1960s space race. The album was already a retrospective.

But it’s only a 14 year gap. When I think about 14 years from my lifetime, it now feels like nothing. The music is now 36 years old.

This album is up there with Music for Airports as one of Brian Eno’s finest, but it’s been a few years since I listened to it. I recently picked up the newly reissued, remastered, extended edition. I had forgotten just how good it is.

While space music is prone to cliche, this album manages to evoke space and the moon perfectly, while avoiding all the tired tropes.

On side A, An Ending (Ascent) is still brilliant, even though it has lost a lot of its power through having been overused in washing detergent ads and the like.

Meanwhile, the Secret Place and Matta are totally otherworldly. These dark masterpieces could almost represent the bits of junk we’ve left behind on the moon, slowly decaying into its surface.

Side B takes a more unexpected twist, with the remaining ambient pieces making way for country-inspired music, perhaps a nod to the inherent American-ness of the Apollo programme.

Sitting down and listening to Apollo for the first time in years — on vinyl too — completely re-opened it to me in many ways. But for some reason, it’s Silver Morning — a Daniel Lanois solo effort — that has stuck with me all week.

The additional disc — called For All Mankind, after the film — may grow on me, but on the first few listens seems largely forgettable.

But what was definitely worth including in the reissue was Brian Eno’s new liner notes. Eno’s short essays are normally worth reading, and this is one of his best.

The old CD copy of Apollo I own talks about how he was determined to use this music to counteract what he saw as the unnecessarily “uptempo ‘newsy’ manner” of the TV coverage.

In the 2019 reissue, he instead reflects on how, 50 years on, we still have no evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Then, a poem about “the bizarre glory of life” — aspects concrete, abstract, biological, cultural, beautiful, ugly, weird, dangerous.

He then notes how the world is becoming, “an increasingly hostile environment for most life forms (including us).” He asks: have other life forms existed, but also destroyed themselves; victims of their own success?

Perhaps all this is why the moon landing doesn’t seem so cool any more. This album, however, is as good as ever.

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