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Pitchfork JULY 20, 2019 - by Alfred Soto
BRIAN ENO - APOLLO: ATMOSPHERES & SOUNDTRACKS - EXTENDED EDITION
The 1983 film score aspired to the weightlessness of outer space. A remastered edition adds an album's worth of new songs that reflect how far we've come from the Apollo missions' optimism.
decade into a solo career dedicated to aural novelty, Brian Eno released an album intended to transform weightlessness into a kind of spiritual exaltation. On Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, the former Roxy Music keyboardist/troublemaker took a break from the fractured narratives and lissome grooves he had helped create for David Bowie and Talking Heads, respectively. The occasion? In its original, 1983 form, a documentary consisting of 35-millimeter footage of the six moon missions; the score composed by Eno, brother Roger, and guitarist Daniel Lanois complement its static, clean images. But in the era of The Return Of The Jedi, maybe audiences didn't respond well to static cleanliness in space movies. After director Al Reinart's re-edit, the documentary was released in 1989 as For All Mankind.
The backstory inspires less interest than the soundtrack itself, which excels at simulating a visual experience from the sparsest means: Call it Another Gravity-Free World. Long a favorite among Enophiles, Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks gets a sparkling remaster and almost an album's worth of okay-to-pretty-good new tracks. Listeners familiar with consistent royalty generators like Deep Blue Day (used to beatific effect in 1996's Trainspotting) will note the bell-like clarity of these souped-up versions, the better to savor the tension between Eno's occasional dissonance and Lanois' penchant for gauze, especially on the friendlier second half.
"The idea was to try and make a frontier space music of some kind," Eno said in a 1998 interview. "When I was asked to do the music for the film, I discovered that the astronauts were each allowed to take a cassette with them on those missions, and they nearly all took country and western songs. I thought it was a fabulous idea that people were out in space, playing this music which really belongs to another frontier - in a way, seeing themselves as cowboys."
Tickled by the protean sampling possibilities of new synthesizer technology, the Enos and Lanois constructed a suite of tracks that approximate Duane Eddy on Mars (there's another possible album title). This is the album's real innovation, still under-discussed. Ambient music is called many things, but "cornball" isn't one of them; the way the guitar twang on Always Returning schlocks up the pretty ripples of Eno's keyboards and the purr of tape manipulations should have produced three dozen offspring by now. (Imagining the electric piano on Weightless anchoring a Jack Wagner hit is not out of bounds.) Lanois stars on Silver Morning, the ur-text for the well-behaved producer-goes-singer exertions of 1989's Acadie. Deep Blue Day has earned its rep as Eno's most recognized instrumental thanks to the turquoise density of the synths and the warmth of Lanois' pedal-steel playing; it's emphatic, unlike other Eno ambient recordings, like 1975's Discreet Music and 1992's The Shutov Assembly.
When Eno goes on his own solo exploratory missions the results are predictably immersive. Ominous gurgles turn Matte into a quiet nightmare: trapped in an oil drum at the bottom of the Pacific. On other tracks he gives Lanois a heads-up on future arrangement ideas - Peter Gabriel, whom Lanois would produce a couple years later, might have concluded after listening to the prominent bass and faint, stately wash of organ on Stars that they'd do nicely for Mercy Street, 1986's So mediation on poet Anne Sexton. Credit Eno's discovery of the Yamaha CS80, one of the first polyphonic synthesizers; it formed, according to Lanois in a 2012 interview about the album, "an essential part of the work we did together."
The new tracks don't sully the original recordings so much as recontextualize them in sometimes rather garish ways. The gleam of the synthesized chords on Like I Was a Spectator doesn't summon outer space; it summons boutique hotel elevator music, which might be the idea. Perhaps that's as it should be. As the excitement about manned space missions - a consequence of Cold War politics intersecting with Great Society notions about what the federal government could fund - has waned in the last thirty-five years, Apollo's clear lines and our memories of, say, National Geographic back issues with photos of the moon's surface fuse into a nostalgia of the mildest evocatory power. The following year Eno and Lanois would produce U2's The Unforgettable Fire, an album on which anthems, Eurodisco, and modest, modish synth doodles rub against each other with nary a fuss. The Unforgettable Fire presents itself as a book of prayers; Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks limns an eternity without a heaven.