Time was when a concept album was very…conceptual. It was all ponderous musings about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (on ice!!!) or angry polemics on the rise of totalitarian dictatorships described through the analogy of a giant wall.
These days, the concept album seems to be a rather more measured, very specific affair, relating to hyper-precise pinpoints on a map, or tight bands of historical periods within even tighter thematic parameters.
And so, for example, we’ve had The Magnetic North’s records themed around (a) Orkney and (b) Skelmersdale. Prior to this we’ve had British Sea Power’s alternative soundtrack to a film about the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, Man of Aran.
There’s also been Hannah Peel’s Mary Casio – Journey to Cassiopeia (on paper, the closest you’ll get to the inflated pomp of a Yes record, but in practice a much more subtle affair) and Public Service Broadcasting’s first EP, The War Room, The Race for Space themed around World War Two and rocketing rivalry respectively.
This year, Public Service Broadcasting returned with an album that brought things down to earth – and, indeed below the earth. Every Valley concerns itself with the Welsh coalmining industry – before, during and after its demise. It is everything you might hope for from the band: a tender, poignant portrait of local life with a clear focus on the humanity involved.
It seemed like an entirely appropriate choice of subject matter given current circumstances. With the present government not being particularly bothered about even trying to conceal their Nasty Party preferences, Every Valley provides a timely reminder of past actions (and effects) of the Tories in government.
Its an intense story arc, beginning with the scene setting of tradition life in a mining village (“the sun rose first on the dead and on the sleeping/on the ruins of Victorian ironworks”) and the associated dangers of a miner’s life (“none knew when the foul air underground might not cause a disastrous explosion”).
And then, after a tantalising glimpse of a potential glorious future for Welsh coal, the pit wheels stop turning.
From the fifth track onwards, gloom, anger, despondency and resignation set in. There’s an impassioned song from James Dean Bradfield in ‘Turn No More’, but the best moments are when Public Service Broadcasting do what they do best: let the archived recordings speak for themselves. ‘They Gave Me a Lamp’ is possibly the best example: an increasingly irate miner’s wife explaining how ‘a lot of women found their feet’ in responding to pit closures:
A lot of women weren’t as fortunate as me: they weren’t taught how to wire a plug, they were taught how to make a sponge, they weren’t taught how to change the wheel on a car, they were taught the proper way to iron a white shirt. You can’t climb up this tree, you’re a girl. You can’t come with us: you’re a girl. And that made me damn determined to do it. And I suppose that sort of stuck with me. I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be out there doing what I was doing why I shouldn’t be out picketing, why I shouldn’t be in a support group. I think lots of women found their feet.
It’s sampled recordings like this that hammer home the very personal tales behind the raw facts of what happened.
The album closes, not with spoken word recordings, or guest vocalists, not even a rising, intense thrash of guitars and drums from the band, but a male voice choir:
I remember the face of my father as we walked back home from the mine. He’d laugh and he’d say that’s one more day…
It tugs at the heartstrings and teases at the tear ducts: a rousing end to an increasingly sombre album. It’s not often you’ll hear people like me extolling the virtues of Welsh Male Voice Choirs, but this is a perfect end to a pretty darn near perfect album.
Along the way, Every Valley is peppered with everything we have come to expect from a Public Service Broadcasting record: the dramatic sounds of thrashing guitars interacting with blasts of brass and shimmering strings. There are more guest vocalists here than on previous outings: James Dean Bradfield, Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell and 9 Bach’s Lisa Jen Brown compared with “just” The Smoke Faeries on The Race for Space.
But it is always – it is always, always, always, the sounds of the archived voices that make Public Service Broadcasting songs so special. And, compared with previous outings which have featured the sounds of plummy radio announcers and Presidents, this album is all the more special because it is rooted in the lives of very ordinary people.
It is, quite simply, beautiful.