While most artists shy away from concept albums, and even the adventurous usually stick at making one, Public Service Broadcasting by contrast have made a career of them.
At their best – Every Valley, 2017’s highly effective exploration Welsh mining’s demise in the last century – these projects have had an invigorating vibrancy, but when they miss, its Pathe-schtick has sometimes rankled.
It’s hard to escape the idea that this Bovrilisation is deliberately contrived, but Every Valley grazed the album chart’s Top 5, so who, they may ask, is the one really getting sand kicked in their faces here?
Whilst it might be an overstatement to describe Bright Magic as a calculated barb at the lumpy mass-consciousness of English nationalism, its conceits are obvious; the thematic construct it’s based around this time is a destination not a cultural waypoint, and that celebrated place is the German capital of Berlin.
To get his head in the right space, lead Broadcaster J. Willgoose Esq. (really) for eight months in 2019 relocated to the city formerly divided by the Cold War, channeling its somewhat chaotic, bohemian energies, in the process creating, he says, is an ‘impressionistic portrait of a city from the ground up’.
There’s lots of other boffinery in the notes as well, but essentially this is PSB shorn of some of their niggly contrivances. Opener Der Sumpf (Sinfonie der Großstadt) is a brief, Moog heavy taste of what follows, an expansive sounding ambience which is also filtered variously across the Lichtspiel triptych – Opus, Schwarz Weiss Grau and Symphonie Diagonale in case you were wondering.
Wildgoose & co.’s usual reliance on samples is leashed, with human cameos favoured instead; veteran of The Bad Seeds and Einstürzende Neubauten, Blixa Bargeld becomes the voice of the city’s post-futurist industry, whilst the ode to Marlene Dietrich, Blue Heaven, features Andreva Casablanca, although the track sounds incongruously more like Anglo indie pop.
Objects and people then; Im Licht is a breezy chillwave celebration of Europe’s first electric streetlight, whilst for the band recording in the renowned Hansa Tonstudio complex brought some evocation of both Depeche Mode’s imperial period and U2’s Achtung Baby.
The longest shadow of all however is perhaps inevitably cast by David Bowie, particularly the era from which sprung the incontestable genius of Heroes and Low. Here, the Warszawa-evoking The Visitor pays tribute, ruminating on his other worldly gift for helping society to assimilate concepts once seen by many as uncomfortably alien.
In a sense, this mirrors Berlin’s postwar journey, from being invidiously twinned to emerging into an uncertain new light and embracing the radical shapes into which it had to take. Closer Ich und die Stadt floats between these realities, actress Nina Hoss voicing over, but that the words are in German is incidental, its spectral washes the ideal complement to a nighttime view from way above its present and past skylines.
At one level Bright Magic represents both a bold departure and Public Service Broadcasting’s most ambitious outing yet; largely dispensing with the tics which made you sort of famous is a skin-shedding which often results in confused audiences and a messy halfway house of unfulfilled ideas.
That this is avoided is highly creditable, but it’s hard to escape the thought that even here the trio still haven’t found a true home.