Sunday, July 09, 2017

Critical error

Reviews don't come much more savage than Luke Turner's evisceration of Public Service Broadcasting's new LP Every Valley for the Quietus, the strapline for which declares it to be "turgid, insipid, bizarrely misjudged pap". So let's review that review.

Turner is unequivocal in his antipathy towards the band's music, their use of samples from audio archives and their whole ethos. Indeed, he's admitted as much on Twitter: "I've always disliked that band but you need a review to hang it on. Or hang them on." This latest album has provided that opportunity, it seems. He's also said that he doesn't "see any point in personal hatchet jobs", arguing that "a thorough criticism" is something different. Fair point - but it's hard to see this review, well written and closely focused on the record itself as it is, as anything other than grossly unfair. Turner is, of course, entitled to his opinion of the album's merits, but I think his review is itself "misjudged pap" for three specific reasons.

First, he's critical of Every Valley for its allegedly clumsy and overly simplistic perspective on its subject, the decline of the coal-mining industry in south Wales, claiming that the LP's message is essentially "the mines closed sad emoji". At the same time, he attacks the more upbeat, "sunny" tracks as inappropriate given the context. While the tone of the album is certainly very often elegiac, there's nothing wrong with that, and it's far more carefully affecting than Turner is prepared to allow. But the record is also angry, defiant and, at times, even tentatively hopeful. Lead single 'Progress' is a case in point, both a Kraftwerkian ode to the promise of a brighter future or at least of new opportunities and greater productivity and efficiency, and an ironic commentary on the inexorable forward march of history and development that threatens old ways of life even as it opens up new ones. Likewise, 'You + Me' celebrates the inestimable value, comfort and solace of simple companionship and loving relationship in the face of socioeconomic apocalypse. Turner somehow attempts to condemn the LP for its lack of nuance and complexity and, at the same time, for any evidence of precisely the sort of nuance and complexity that he's demanding. The logic is utterly baffling.

Second, there's the sentence that begins "Even the presence (finally!) of some Welsh language lyricism from Lisa Jen Brown". That word "finally!" suggests that Welsh-language vocals are long overdue, and by implication that the extensive use of English-language vocals and audio clips is culturally insensitive. This naive and simplistic conflation of the Welsh language and Welsh identity betrays a profound ignorance on Turner's part: south Wales is not predominantly Welsh speaking. Public Service Broadcasting have done no disservice whatsoever to the miners and their communities by releasing an album about their plight in which most of the voices speak in English.

Third, there's the charge of "distasteful appropriation". It's a serious accusation, and certainly not one to be bandied about lightly. In the case of Every Valley, it's also one that is manifestly false. As Englishmen with no personal connections to the area or the industry, Public Service Broadcasting seem to have been acutely aware that they might be opening themselves up to a charge of cultural appropriation, and thus set out to do everything they possibly could to avoid it. As this Independent article underlines, they fully immersed themselves in their subject by interviewing former miners, poring over the archives in the South Wales Miners' Library, recording the album in a temporary purpose-built studio within the Ebbw Vale Institute (at the heart of the community whose tale it tells) and returning to launch it there with two gigs on consecutive nights in early June. Rather than actually acknowledging the thoughtfulness and effort that went into the album's creation or the subsequently enthusiastic and grateful responses to the LP from those with whom Public Service Broadcasting have collaborated (those whom the record was for and about), Turner lazily whips out the appropriation card. If anyone stands guilty of sitting at home in London writing insensitively on something about which they apparently know nothing for their own personal gain, it's Turner.

The whole thing is rather depressing, as Turner is undeniably a great writer - even in this piece his turn of phrase is often worth savouring - and I've enjoyed many of his articles in the past. On this occasion, though, he's attempted to justify a strongly prejudiced opinion through a willful misrepresentation of a record that by no means deserves it.

Turner's piece is conspicuous among the many positive assessments of Every Valley - hardly the first time the Quietus have been very much in the minority, though, which (let's face it) is something they seem to like. It's inevitably provoked some social media discussion about the nature and function of reviews (including contributions from the likes of Luke Haines and Portishead's Geoff Barrow) - and here's where we're in agreement. He's claimed that there isn't enough negative music criticism, and he's right. It's important to remember (as Arctic Drones haven't and bands, labels, PR companies and readers often don't) that, while reviewers regularly champion artists they love, they are not merely PR reps and shouldn't be expected to blindly and breathlessly regurgitate press releases and puff pieces. A review is (or at least should be) a subjective reaction, and alongside glowing recommendations there's also a place for well-written, cogently argued demolition jobs, which are enjoyable both to write and to read.

So, while I profoundly disagree with the substance and the argument of this specific review (one that reads like a deliberate misinterpretation and smacks of axes being ground), I absolutely defend the right of Turner or anyone else to write reviews that are less than gushing.

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