Released in the summer of 1983, one year after Steven Spielberg’s E.T and four months after Ronald Reagan unveiled his plan for “Star Wars,” Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks is an album at once rooted deeply in its space-obsessed epoch, and yet timeless, ephemeral. It was written as the score for a documentary called For All Mankind, which comprised footage from the Apollo Moon missions, but that film’s release was delayed until 1989, so Eno put the music out as a standalone album. (Several tracks did appear in the film six years later.) Devoid of the garbled, garrulous narration that originally accompanied television footage of the 1969 moon landing, Eno’s album has a strangeness, an airiness, an otherness that captures better than any of his other works the feeling of drifting through a void. It’s a sparse album, and also a surprisingly eclectic one, with sinuous electronic pieces, layers of ethereal ambience, and songs tinctured with country-western guitar twang, provided by Daniel Lanois. (The space cowboys all took country cassettes with them into space, which fascinated Eno. Apollo is something of an attempt to capture the aural sensations of the final frontier.)
If Apollo isn’t as vital as Eno’s Ambient Music 1 or the subsequent Thursday Afternoon, it still offers prolonged moments of sublimity, like staring into a starry abyss.
Some tracks recall the forlorn German electronic music of the time (i.e. Tangerine Dream), while others have the languor of a classic rock ballad. The happier second half isn’t as beguiling as the more ominous first, with its hokey guitars floating atop undulating waves, but the album, Eno’s ninth, still encapsulates what makes its tireless progenitor the best ambient musician of the 20th century. The new remaster of Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks includes an album’s worth of brand new material. The new tracks are shimmery, smooth, with swelling synth chords and oscillating notes like satellites eternally orbiting the Earth. Eno and Lanois worked remotely for the new material, and the division of labor makes it easier to discern which layers were contributed by which musician, so the songs lack that sui generis majesty, but Eno’s contributions are still predictably sublime. The best new songs are “Under the Moon,” which exudes profound loneliness and pathos, and “Clear Desert Night,” whose lovelorn, gentle mood elicits feelings of stargazing on a cool clear night. Even if Apollo isn’t as vital as Eno’s Ambient Music 1, or the subsequent Thursday Afternoon, it still offers prolonged moments of sublimity, like staring into a starry abyss.