For those of you who don’t know, Public Service Broadcasting are a trio of eccentrically named (J. Willgoose, Esq., JFAbraham, Wrigglesworth) chaps from South London who look and dress like Open University professors circa 1973.
Their ‘thing’ is creating collages from found sounds, vintage broadcasts and traditional instruments, a nerdy, boffintronica approach that tends to divide listener opinion fairly sharply.
To give them credit, this splice-and-nice shtick proved the ideal modus operandi for them on 2015’s The Race For Space, on which they chronicled America and Russia’s attempts to out-Cold War each other in the name of progress during the mid 20th century. Comprised of largely unchallenging bleeps and beats, it nevertheless helped to cement the threesome in a roundly praised niche of one, simultaneously quelling the smack downs and cynicism of their detractors.
Every Valley’s concept is an even more ambitious one, attempting to chart the demise of the coal industry in south Wales using the entropy as a meta for the de-industrialisation of western Europe and the resulting damage inflicted on thousands of formerly prosperous communities.
To faithfully capture the dynamic, the group did their homework; spending hundreds of hours interviewing former miners, the excerpts of which reproduced here are poignant reminders of the human cost of progress.
A roughly chronological journey which starts in the post-Second World War era, PSB map the collieries’ peak and rapid decline with poise. There’s stark irony as we hear a disembodied voice stating that there’s at least 400 years worth of coal left to be extracted from the bountiful seams, whilst Richard Burton pays homage to the ‘arrogant strut of the lords of the coal field’.
The problem is that, hindered by the limitations of their instrumental form, the power of the stories are dissipated, the evocations wrapped up in a backdrop which often feels too incidental to the events being recognised. With no direct references to the bitter 1984-85 strike which effectively began the end, angry voices are also at a minimum, leaving instead a collection that feels half-finished, part university dissertation, part mood music for a tech company’s latest software release.
To their credit, the trio go some way to addressing this by bringing in guests – of which James Dean Bradfield’s (whose own town of Blackwood suffered as a result of the industry’s decline) charged words make Turn No More comfortably Every Valley’s most interesting moment. To underline the point, the warmth of You+Me’s skeletal jazz discretely lends more credence to the notion that the beauty and hope in people’s resilience is more empathetically lent to song.
Every Valley closes with the Beaufort Male Choir’s rousing version of Take Me Home, a timely reminder that culture and meaning often survive the physical forms which once may have hosted them. There is no doubting that the broader issues of avaricious capitalism and globalisation which it tries to address are of current rather than historical importance, or that the people spotlighted here deserve a right to reply towards politicians and their callous, failed social engineering.
But for Public Service Broadcasting, the lesson it should teach is that good intentions need to be squared with meaning, that consciences need to be stirred as well as soothed.
It’s an admirable failure, but a failure all the same.