I’m always surprised by just how effective and emotionally affecting this quirky two-piece can be. A jumble of anachronisms from both the past and future, clad in bowtie and necessarily over-sized spectacles, Public Service Broadcasting are an informative duo combining discursive, gentle, and often funky and ambient music with sound bites and quotes culled from The British Film Institute.
Whilst that may sound excellent on paper, as so many non-reified concepts do, I’ve always felt that any artist or performer that clings too closely to a particular paradigm runs the risk of turning their output into a stale, inflexible gimmick, as two-dimensional as the aforementioned paper it was conceived on. But after transmuting this paper into music digestible by my ears, I’ve found this caveat does not apply in this instant. Staying true to their semi-serious mission brief of ‘teaching the lessons of the past through the music of the future’, these musical archivists have revivified history through transposing it to the present, and titillated us all in the process.
Though pioneers in their own small way, they are certainly not the first artists to let samples take the centre stage – David Byrne and Brian Eno’s seminal My Life In The Bush of Ghosts is a personal favourite, and the matching of colourful music with evocative samples brings a few Lemon Jelly tracks to mind – like all new genres still in development, what they are responsible for is mostly a matter of refinement. Realizing the poignancy of this application, they have gone up a level in terms of ambition and use, culminating in their second full-length album The Race For Space.
As the title suggests, the album is spun from the narrative thread of the political race for space and man’s putative conquest of the heavens, as told through the snippets of voices from the politicians, technicians, television presenters, and cosmonauts involved, and the music that underlies it. Beginning with an ethereal, Renaissance-era choir, we hear the inimitable voice of JFK declaiming the virtues of space travel. This is immediately sets the tone at a level of greater ambition than their debut Inform – Educate – Entertain. Having assured their audience they can do exactly what the former promised, they have expanded their scope to explore deeper themes, and launched themselves from the depths of the BBC Archives and into the intangibility of space.
The sense of striving and searching has always been important to their music. This sensibility is definitely informed by the classical British unflappability implicit in the voices they sample; but ever since listening to ‘Everest’ from their first album, it is hard not to hear the purposive push of the human will serving as the metronome for all of their music. Because of this, their music always provides a wonderful up-thrust to my mood, and inspires me to seek bigger things. The astronauts and adventurers sampled on their records may be long dead, but the strength and immortal spirit they awaken in all of us will never be vanquished, and it is the peculiarity of the music to help us attain this. From the buoyant funkiness of the horns on ‘Gagarin’ to the stillborn spectrality of ‘Fire in the Cockpit’ the music is intricate and sensitive to the demands of the stories inherent in the songs, alive with meticulosity, diplomacy and tact. I find ‘E.V.A.’ particular dramatic in this respect; and the luxurious heavenliness of ‘Valentina’ with its spacious ambience, shuffling snare, and reassuringly wordless sung syllables can’t help but make you feel the indescribable joy and repose one must feel floating freely in the void of space.
Listening to The Race For Space makes me feel excited about the future, and especially the future of this band. Like the dreamy pioneers and wunderkinds immortalized in their music, I have tasted the cream of adventure, and, knowing that there are greater things to come, my restless spirit years for their arrival. I listen to the single ‘Go’ as I write this, and it is like hearing the musicalization of my optimistic conscience, urging me onto towards the enlivenment of all my dreams. In rapt anticipation, I can’t wait to hear where Public Service Broadcasting will take us to next now that the frontiers of space have been established, and even more of The Great Unreachable is within out grasp. Until then, I will just have to embody the motto of the British spirit, and Keep Calm and Carry On listening to this album!
Wants to go to space? Save yourself the cost of a centrifuge and a lot of vomit, buy a bow-tie, and listen to The Race For Space instead.