Concept albums can understandably make the blood run cold, but Public Service Broadcasting have carved a new niche in the market over the last five years. By plundering the BFI archives for archive audio and video clips, they tell album-length tales of social history by invoking the authentic voices of the day and colliding them with the band’s own electronic Krautrock. They have previously catalogued the early days of broadcasting and the Space Race, and now with album number three they turn their spotlight to the rise and fall of the industrial coal mining towns of South Wales. If that sounds instinctively less stimulating than their previous subject matter, then the album may do little to change your mind.
Their process is undeniably engaging, and Every Valley adopts a narrative, cinematic three-act structure more closely than their previous efforts. We begin with our audio camera honing in from afar on an unnamed but typical Welsh mining town in its glory days. It is the opening and title track, a romantic depiction of the “grimy, frowning hills”, as the 1957 British Transport voiceover clip describes, before the unmistakable Richard Burton speaks of how it was once every boy’s dream to work in the mining underworld.
It is swiftly followed by The Pits, a day-in-the-life snapshot of the working day, wherein the hard-bitten, danger-immune, resilient honour of the working community is enshrined in the listeners’ ears. The problem is, this idea is all too familiar. The clanging guitar chords and sliding string arpeggios depict the hostile, bustling environment in exactly the way you would expect. Nevertheless, the scene has been set, the context has been lain, and we are ready for the inevitable moment when all turns sour.
The process of disillusionment is the stage of the story that PSB deal with most impressively. The blacker-than-coal black comedy of People Will Always Need Coal begins with a ludicrously utopian 1970s mining recruitment jingle before giving way to an authoritative voice declaring that there will be enough coal underground for “at least four hundred years”. It asks the question of whether the establishment was deliberately misleading the dependent communities, or if this was merely the reality before the seismic change of the 1979 general election. Progress, featuring the giddy vocals of Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell, includes a reassuring snippet that “machines will do the heavy work, and men will oversee the machines”.
The inevitable outbreak of anger that ensues is captured by All Out, a strikingly furious track driven by stabs of electric guitar, the likes of which have never previously infiltrated PSB’s music. “We’re not going to take any more” is the first of many clips from disenfranchised Welsh voices that fills much of the rest of the album. Unfortunately, All Out aside, the musical accompaniment does not do enough to echo the strength of conviction of its historical characters. Tracks like Go To The Road and They Gave Me A Lamp are sober and straightforward instrumentals, lacking the vibrancy of the previous two albums.
James Dean Bradfield, himself from the Welsh mining town of Blackwood, offers a measure of credibility with his turn on Turn No More, singing lines from miner-turned-poet Idris Davies’ Gwalla Deserta. But the best collaboration comes in the form of You + Me, a bilingual love duet between J Willgoose Esq (his singing debut on a PSB record) and Lisa Jen Brown from the Welsh folk group 9Bach. It is a beautiful song, only tangentially related to the album’s subject – perhaps in hindsight this more allegorical connection to the story might have been the way to go. It curiously is bookended by a drum pattern that is almost identical to that from Bowie’s ‘Five Years’, lending it a subconscious flavour of apocalyptic fear, but the expression between the two voices feels genuine.
The album concludes with the Beaufort Male Choir, comprised partly of former miners, singing an a capella version of the 1970s folk song Take Me Home. It will strike some as mawkish, but it is true to the essence of Every Valley, an album that is wide-eyed in its sincerity, unafraid of sentimentality, for better or worse. The political message is familiar, and will never grow old. The means of expression, however, can become a little too routine.