White Star Liner by Public Service Broadcasting

Release date: October 26, 2018
Label: PIAS

Are you ready kids? “Aye Aye Captain”, I can’t hear yooooou “AYE AYE CAPTAIN” Ohhhhhh…

Yes friends, having maintained a stiff upper lip through times of war, into space and down the pit Public Service Broadcasting set their dials to nautical nonsense for this new EP. White Star Liner tells the story of the Titanic in four quick chapters with all the sensitive historical engagement and deep emotional resonance we’ve come to expect from Willgoose, Wrigglesworth and co. That is to say, only marginally more than you’d get from Patrick and Spongebob.

‘The Unsinkable Ship’ opens on watery loops and the usual archive material, awed recollections of a Belfast lad, taken to see the extraordinary ship his father was working on. Driven on by bombastic slashes of guitar, there’s something a bit Pink Floyd about it. It builds expectantly but doesn’t have anywhere to go yet, unable to leave the dock until the next track it circles and stops. ‘White Star Liner’ is obviously the lead track here, pleasant indie strums float a clipped RP voice hymning the Titanic’s impressive scale as it sets out across the Atlantic. There’s a sweet descending chord pattern and a processed chorus of voices that seem to carry the ship forwards. It shimmers with hope and admiration. Ultimately though the music is as polite and mannered as the archive voice. Like a ladybird book but lacking the charm of the illustrations. It also sounds exactly like a Public Service Broadcasting record and the template they’ve been using so far is now looking a little worse for wear.

We all know how the story goes of course, an infamous lump of icy tragedy looms. C-Q-D was the morse distress signal the ship’s operators alternated with the then new S-O-S. It’s mercifully short on samples for a change and either makes no use of the actual signal or sinks it so deep it’s undetectable. The track plays out rather as if Willgoose had received a telegram from a nephew enthusing about a Mogwai soundtrack and made his own attempt based upon the description. The result is splashy and a little tougher but sorely lacking as an invocation of such a moment of crisis.

Finally, ‘The Deep’ is a sombre dirge that draws on ‘Songe d’automne’ – generally held to be the last tune the band were playing as the ship went down. I don’t know whether to be impressed or surprised that they didn’t include the sound of lapping waves. It’s ghostly but short and ends on a recording of the voice of a survivor that sounds very much like the longer piece used in Gavin Bryar’s The Sinking Of The Titanic. Unfortunately for PSB a comparison that casts their efforts in particularly unflattering light. Still, nobody really comes to a Public Service Broadcasting record looking for long form minimalism or actually expecting it to Inform-Educate-Entertain do they? Just the last one really and they might not even be managing that here.

The format they’ve established thus far can now seemingly go on forever with only diminishing returns. Perhaps reducing the tragedies of the Falklands war, 9/11 or (in a Brexit prescient move) The Troubles into blank entertainment by scattering news reel clips over the same muzak version of experimental rock music. Maybe, at this time of year, we should be grateful there are no known archive recordings of Christ’s birth or Pathé reels from Santa’s workshop. On the bright side it’s not impossible that this EP sees them reaching the end of this approach and setting out for new worlds. The iceberg gags just write themselves don’t you find?

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