Friday, March 20, 2015

The Race for Space: Who Wins?

The Race for Space is the second full-length LP from Public Service Broadcasting. It is, unsurprisingly, an album about the USA vs. USSR 'space race', which began in the 1950s and ended sometime in the 1970s. It is also, unsurprisingly, very good indeed. The previous Public Service Broadcasting album (2013's Inform-Educate-Entertain) was very good too, but that was simply a collection of very good songs; this, on the other hand, is a very good *album*.

As boring as you're about to think I am, one of my favourite things about The Race for Space is its sequencing - i.e. the order the tracks are in, and the narrative that this order creates. The title track kicks things off by taking excerpts from JFK's rousing Rice University speech and backing them with an equally rousing choral arrangement, but while this does a great job of firing us up for the various American victories we'll be hearing about later on, it's actually Team Russia that dominates the first half of the record. Sputnik and Gagarin (tracks 2 and 3, respectively) celebrate two big Russian achievements, and they're immediately followed by Fire in the Cockpit, a rather harrowing account of the Apollo 1 accident. Two Russian wins are followed by an utter calamity for America, then another success for the USSR - E.V.A. is all about Alexey Leonov, the first man to leave his spacecraft and move around in open space.

(All of this is cleverly reflected in the music itself; for example, funked-up lead single Gagarin positively struts with proud exuberance, while Fire in the Cockpit barely even has a melody, let alone a fat, kickass, horn-toting hook.)

However, a major turning point greets us as we arrive at Track 6. This one is all about the first manned lunar orbit, which was a huge achievement for NASA, and which represents this record's first example of an unambiguous American success. The track's name is The Other Side, and it's an appropriate title; not only are we hearing about mankind's first journey to the 'other side' of the Moon, we're also entering the 'other side' of The Race for Space, i.e. the part where America start to pull ahead of their opponent.

Bearing all of this in mind makes that quiet part in the middle all the more tense.

From here on out, it's all about America (with the sole exception of Valentina, a noticeable musical departure that pays homage to the first female cosmonaut). The fabulously propulsive Go! is built around chatter from the Apollo 11 mission (y'know, the one that actually landed on the Moon), while closing track Tomorrow takes Apollo 17 - mankind's last Moon mission to date - and presents it as something of a victory lap for the States.

So does this mean that the USA won the Space Race (and, indeed, The Race for Space)? Not necessarily - given that both space programmes managed their fair share of famous firsts, I think it's fair to saw that Russia and America shared the spoils, and I'm pretty sure that this is the result that Public Service Broadcasting are claiming with this record. They've even given it two covers - one for the USSR (a reddish picture of Sputnik shooting out of the Earth's atmosphere), and one for the States (a lunar landscape featuring Neil Armstrong and his iconic American flag).

Everyone's a winner in this race.

1 comment:

  1. I've bought this the same time as the latest Modest Mouse effort, so I haven't had a chance to fully delve into either yet. I love the sleeve notes that come with the Race for Space though - a really nice way to put the LP in context. I also love that Gargarin is a storming, vaguely funky beast too!