sat 21/09/2019

CD: Gruff Rhys - Babelsberg | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Gruff Rhys - Babelsberg

CD: Gruff Rhys - Babelsberg

The sometime Super Furry frontman heads for the apocalypse armed with hope and an amazing clutch of songs

"It's not what we were expecting from the brochure"

For his fifth solo album (not counting last year’s delayed soundtrack to Set Fire to the Stars) Welsh singer-songwriter and sometime Super Furry frontman Gruff Rhys inhabits an imaginary landscape in order to deal with issues that are all too real. Like its filmic predecessor, it has been a long time coming. The songs were recorded back in 2016 and, given the world's trajectory in the ensuing years, the dystopian landscape Rhys paints could easily be seen as visionary. 

The reason for the delay was not to encourage comparisons with Nostradamus but to ensure that composer Stephen McNeff was available to score the songs. The best things really do come to those who wait. The orchestration drives but never overpowers, and is delivered with a beautifully harnessed sense of sympathy. The same is true of the band that Rhys gathered for this project. In particular, the basslines provided by Stephen Black (Sweet Baboo) are astounding, marrying form and function in a way that would make Carol Kaye proud. 

Rhys manages to inject humanist hope into scenarios with a gentle unfolding of the human conditionThe songs on Babelsberg contain timeless echoes of songwriting royalty. Touchstones include Scott Walker, Lee Hazelwood and Jimmy Webb but, crucially, at no point does this feel like anything other than a Gruff Rhys record. Rhys has one of the most distinctive voices in modern songwriting, and the fact that this cuts through such a diverse range of work is testament to his vision. 

The scope of this collection feels bigger than previous solo outings. These are songs that depict a world gone wrong, heading for a catastrophic date with destiny. Rhys manages to inject humanist hope into this beak backdrop by invoking a sense of compassion and a belief that all might not be lost. “They threw me out of the club, into the darkest alley,” he sings in “The Club”. It’s a wonderful rendering of the sentiment felt by nearly half of the country as we stagger into the darkened cul-de-sac of independence from Brussels. Yet even here there is optimism as the song ends in defiance with “I pick myself up into the blazing sunset.” 

The sunset also features in the album’s closer, the apocalyptic duet with Lily Cole, “Selfies in the Sunset”. As well as containing one of the funniest lyrics I’ve heard in years, “Mel Gibson howls with rage / The worst Hamlet of his age”, the song tempers the dread of oncoming armegeddon with the line, “Wake me in the morning at the beginning of a new dawn.” It’s a gently buoyant ending for an album that sees Rhys offer the best of songs for the end of times. 


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