‘Babelsberg’ looks at Rhys’ world as it is now, externally and internally.
Label: Rough Trade
Released: 8th June 2018
Sometime Super Furry Animal, sometime author, filmmaker, soundtrack composer and psychedelic troubadour Gruff Rhys recently put together a Spotify playlist subtitled ‘Depressing songwriters sing piano driven vaguely orchestral pop’. Eschewing the electronics of his Neon Neon side-project, along with the off-kilter wanderings of his last solo album proper, it gives a pretty good idea as to the kind of territory he’s traversing on his fifth album, Rhys’ first solo output since the ‘Set Fire to the Stars’ soundtrack, released in 2016.
The ten songs here were recorded around the same time, but fairly skeletally, awaiting orchestral scores by Swansea-based composer Stephen McNeff. And what scores. Featuring the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales (the Doctor Who orchestra; a suitably cosmic pedigree), the mood is grandiose, sweeping and country-tinged: Glen Campbell, Lee Hazlewood or even Scott Walker’s little-loved fallow years.
If 2014’s ‘American Interior’ was a historical search for enlightenment in the undiscovered, ‘Babelsberg’ looks at Rhys’ world as it is now, externally and internally. So ‘Take That Call’’s playful exchanges between fuzzy guitar and violins ride a steadily plunging bass, commending the benefits of taking the time to communicate properly, but the swaying, soulful ‘Same Old Song’ confronts Rhys’ own advancing years and the physical rigours of being on the road. ‘Limited Edition Heart’ is a dig at the artificiality of supposedly limited supply in anything from chairs to pizza to, perhaps, the truth, while ‘The Club’ seems to pick a particularly sore spot for Gruff (“They threw me out of the club/The club I built with my own two hands”).
Meanwhile, ‘Architecture of Amnesia’, the orchestra going from gentle embellishments to a tense, almost martial feel, is the most nakedly political thing here, and one of Rhys’ finest songs since the very best of SFA. Taking aim at the reliance in certain quarters on people’s tendency to forget (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”), Rhys makes particular reference to the events of 2016 – “And the narrative led the hungry to the axe/With the lure of false promises And fear of attack… And they built a wall”.
The contemplative but bleakly humorous duet ‘Selfies in the Sunset’ closes the album – “Apocalyptic mushroom clouds/tower above us… This is the end/ Get your phone out to document”, but ends on an ultimately optimistic note – “wake me in the morning at the beginning of a new dawn”. As Rhys sings in the opening ‘Frontier Man’, “On the frontier of delusion/I’m your foremost frontier man” – it’s a crazy world, but who better to guide you through it? Rob Mesure