Review Summary: Break through the atmosphere of cynicism and there is a whole album to explore.
To address the elephant in the room, Public Service Broadcasting's pairing of archive footage and electrically charged indie rock jams was a gimmick. Willgoose and Wrigglesworth, after reflecting on their spectacular names, took the small, archival niche from the interlude of every post-rock album ever made and formed a career out of it. Inform – Educate – Entertain
saw energetic synth-lines and infectious build-ups go hand-in-hand with recordings about the development of the Spitfire and benefits of colour TV.
The result was a lot of fun. PSB, no doubt aware of the charm of their recordings and evidently wary of reducing their output to misguided lunges at nostalgia, broke through the shadow of cynicism with sincerity. Inform – Educate – Entertain
displayed nothing but endearing fascination for the subject; in their words: 'teaching the lessons of the past through the music of the future.' You say 'gimmick'; I say 'so"'.
The question remained as to whether PSB could stretch this to cover another album, and they have done the right thing in sprucing up the formula. The Race for Space
focuses on the politics, drama and defining moments of the 1955-72 space race between the USA and Soviet Union. Narrowing the subject matter has allowed PSB to be more ambitious with their storytelling: enabling them to create a clearer image of the events of the time. What lessons they are precisely trying to teach us beyond the fact that space is quite cool is uncertain, but at least they have a whole album to tell us space is quite cool in a lot of quite cool ways.
Don't mistake narrative restriction for musical restriction, because The Race for Space
also sees PSB put a lot of work into evolving their sound. The album begins with JFK's 'We Choose to Go to the Moon' speech, lifts it with angelic cries and within 10 minutes we rush through the robotic, techno-inspired 'Sputnik' and find ourselves midway through the unstoppable funk of lead-single 'Gagarin': an ecstatic tribute to the first man in space complete with a six piece brass section. The cut up samples and high intensity of 'Go!' provides the clearest link to old material, as well as showcasing the duo's best work in seamlessly incorporating archive footage into the music itself.
Other attempts to branch out are not so successful. PSB's sound works best when it is lighthearted, or at least not overly serious. Smoke Fairies collaboration 'Valentina' displays this perfectly by setting its sights on providing a depoliticised tribute to the first woman in space and coming off as confusingly stagnant and a little bit naff. Likewise, the album closer 'Tomorrow' is swamped with slow strings and its own seriousness, and as such remains pretty forgettable.
Stand out 'The Other Side' breaks this trend somewhat. Documenting the tense communication break between mission control and a spaceship as it passes behind the moon, PSB play out the footage with a pulsating, nervous build-up, let the silence fill 'the longest wait' and then return for an explosive, triumphant finale. PSB make it work by allowing themselves to let loose and so avoid robbing the song of its energy despite the tense subject matter.
The album's worst fault is inconsistency, but apart from that there is not much wrong. The duo have been much more ambitious in their second outing and as such can be forgiven for not quite hitting the mark at times. The Race for Space
is incredibly fun when it wants to be: showcasing the same joyful sincerity which made their sound work in the first place, despite the fact PSB have embarked on a much more refined and grandiose project. When you leave the worst parts behind and break through the atmosphere of cynicism there is still a whole lot of excitement to explore.