Public Service Broadcasting The Race for Space

[Test Card; 2015]

Styles: krautrock, electronica, space rock, prog rock, astronautic propaganda
Others: Kraftwerk, the KLF, the Beta Band, The Go! Team, Barack Obama

“And the question for us now is whether that was the beginning of something or the end of something. I choose to believe it was only the beginning.”
– Barack Obama, April 15 2010, John F. Kennedy Space Center

It might have been only the beginning for Obama, but if you put the same question to Public Service Broadcasting, you’d receive a more ambivalent answer. On their second LP, the London duo spin a condensed history of The Race for Space that gripped the US and the USSR during the peak of the Cold War, yet for all the excitement and optimism evoked by their Krautrock, electronica, and post-instrumentalism, they also evoke the era’s quashed hopes and ideologically hoodwinked naivety. Their sequel to Inform - Educate - Entertain expands upon the 2013 debut’s taste for long-lost radio and TV announcements to emphasize the innocence and idealism of the world of the Apollo program, which in contrast to the terror-blighted McWorld of the Apple program must now seem more than a little quaint. That said, even if our “enlightened” cynicism and caution are the safer postures to adopt in a less Utopian 21st Century, the duo’s multicolored eclecticism and laser-guided escalations reside as an often irresistible testament to what we could achieve if only we dropped our defenses once in a while.

Indeed, what could be more irresistible than sitting down for the angelic title track and hearing JFK declare, “We choose to go to moon in this decade and do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard”? During that same speech of September 12 1962, Kennedy also proclaimed of how the space program harbored “new hopes for knowledge and peace,” and it’s precisely these hopes that are reflected back at us by the choral haze of “The Race for Space” and the motorik unfurling of “Sputnik.” The latter’s glossed circuitry of synth and guitar forge the suspicion of a new beginning, as they peak to its magisterial ending, coalescing with such millennial soundbites as “the universe stretches forth its beckoning hand” to remind us that space travel captured yesterday’s imagination precisely because it promised a fundamental break with everything that had preceded it.

A similar break is heralded by single “Gagarin,” which in contrast to the frigid electronic grace of “Sputnik,” is a fan-faring funk number swathed with taut chops and celebratory trumpets. Its snappy horn riffs and high-energy picking exude the kind of delighted hubris that, in some quarters, must have followed the first successful missions into orbit, when futurologists were probably given enough bait to assume that in a matter of decades there’d be a New New York on Mars, if not on an extrasolar planet. Its bright-eyed dynamism flaunts the no-less dynamic versatility of Messrs, Willgoose, and Wrigglesworth (yes, pseudonyms) when it segues into a delicately stirring passage of arpeggios and strings, eliciting something of the wonder and awe that transfixed every person who watched the first moon landing.

But the interest of The Race for Space lies not in its uncomplicated reminiscing of former triumphs, but in how it subtly casts these ostensible victories in a less glorious light. Not only are there tracks like the mournful “Fire in the Cockpit,” which remind us via groaning cellos that the space program had its own death toll, but the whole retro-orientation of the album — its dealing in obsolescent analog synths and plasticated guitar EQs — emphasize how our former quest to puncture the Earth’s atmosphere is itself distastefully outmoded, is itself as clichéd as the Moogian sounds and neon styles that constitute the nine tracks that the London pair serve up for us. For example, despite its wonderfully contagious fervor, “Go!” is carried by an airy synth motif and chugging metal lead that are just about timeworn enough to insinuate that the narrative of spaceflight was similarly banal and superficial, regardless of its pretensions of grandeur and transcendence.

Moreover, the fact that numbers like “Go!” and the proggish “E.V.A.” trade in defunct styles perfectly encapsulates how the dream of interstellar travel is analogously defunct. Tokenistic asides from Mr. Obama notwithstanding, the budget of NASA as a percentage of federal spending has decreased from 4.41% at its height in 1966 to 0.50% in 2014, whereas in that same year military expenditure stood at a much healthier 16.8%1. In other words, the idea of traveling to other celestial bodies is as much a dead history piece as the “futuristic” synthesizers that phase in and out of the glockenspiel ether of “Tomorrow.” As an artifact, it’s given way to the far older and more important idea of intervening militarily and economically in other nations. This shouldn’t really come as a shock either, since the latter notion has always been the dominant one; in fact, The Race for Space does a solid job of emphasizing how the romance of space travel was largely a front for an unromantic ideological battle between the world’s then-ascendant superpowers. From the sampled “we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest” of the introductory “The Race for Space,” to mention of how “The Soviet Union” had sent a “cosmonaut” into orbit during the jingoistic grandstanding of “Gagarin,” it inflects a predominantly affectionate rendering of the Space Age with a constant imperialistic undertone. It thereby gives us cause to wonder whether the space race was little more than instrument used to dupe us into being enthusiastic about a ruthless competition for power and hegemony.

Additionally, this subtle referencing of the Cold War injects the album’s otherwise faithful homages with added dimensions of interest and resonance, transforming pieces like “The Other Side” and its white-light coursing into a bittersweet mix of teary euphoria and knowing nostalgia. With the benefit of hindsight, this album high-point becomes as much a lamentation as anything else, its binary pulsing and doleful chords working up to a cathartic apex that represents not so much our breach into “the other side,” but our melancholic realization that this other side was never the object of NASA to begin with. Even with a swooning guitar-led cut like the melodic “Valentina Featuring Smoke Fairies,” much of the curious emotional weight of The Race for Space derives from the recognition that, in what we thought was the attempt to fly our way into a new mode of existence, we were really only reinforcing the supremacy of an old mode. We weren’t laying the foundations for a radically new way of living, but were instead advertising the superiority of a capitalist way over a communist one.

And in the end, it’s this awareness that ensures The Race for Space is more than the mere sum of its glistening parts. Contrary to their debut, its historical samples and retro stylings combine to substantial effect, lending it greater relevance and meaning than it would have possessed without either element. In that album, the quotation of dated genres had something of a kitsch and novelty-for-novelty’s-sake element about it, whereas in this follow-up their quotations enjoy greater cohesion and impact, coming across as completely necessary to the purpose of representing the gulf that now separates a period of guileless confidence from one of skeptical pessimism. Admittedly, the album’s focus on backwards-looking instrumentation might not be to everyone’s taste, but I defy anyone who’s ever been fascinated by the mysteries of space to listen to the oceanic lull of “The Other Side” or each resolute “Go” in “Go!” and not feel something bristling inside them. Maybe a space program is a waste of taxpayer money that would be better spent elsewhere, and maybe Obama has done nothing more than relive the glories of the past whenever he’s appeased his NASA audiences as of late, but there are very few metaphors for the limitlessness of human creativity and ingenuity as powerful as that provided by space, and now by Public Service Broadcasting.

1. Actually, military expense as a proportion of governmental discretionary spending is calculated to be as high as 58%:

Links: Public Service Broadcasting - Test Card

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