Gruff Rhys, the distinctive front-man for Super Furry Animals, has returned from whatever unique realm he inhabits to grace us with a new record. Called Babelsberg, and out on Friday via Rough Trade, the album blends the lush with the lyrical, the lovely, sweeping tunes within serving to anchor some of Gruff's best, most aware compositions.
From the easy-and-catchy "Limited Edition Heart" and on to the friendly "Take That Call", Gruff sounds in command here, less concerned with defining himself as a solo artist anymore, and more content to serve the music itself, in these cases a kind of modern indie that nods as much in the direction of previous Furries albums as it does old Van Dyke Parks ones. The elegant "Drones In the City" allows Gruff to sing about drones -- presumably, the non-violent kind -- while the music echoes that of Aaron Copland underneath him. The cut is one of the best things he's served up outside the Furries, and one marvels at how easily he and the assorted players here -- Kliph Scurlock (ex-Flaming Lips, drums), Stephen Black (Sweet Baboo, multiple instruments) and Osian Gwynedd (multiple instruments) -- pull off this sort of chamber pop. Similarly, "Negative Vibes" soars. A faint cousin to "Fragile Happiness" from SFA so many years ago, the track finds Rhys reassuring himself (and us) that things may be falling apart, but they're not that bad after all. There is, like in so many of his best compositions, something starry-eyed here, but Gruff Rhys, like Lennon and Davies before him, manages to earn his sentimentality. Nothing about this one feels too easy or too pat, you know? And with Swansea composer Stephen McNeff and the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales behind the tunes, it's hard for this selection, and so many here, not to sound majestic in every way.
Elsewhere, "Same Old Song" unfurls with the same sort of deliberate stride as found on opener "Frontier Man", while "Oh Dear!" mourns the sorry state of things even as Gruff purrs his trenchant lyrics over top of the Jimmy Webb-style music. Rhys speaks more directly about the work of the deranged politicians controlling our discourse, especially the madman in Washington, on the sleek "Architecture of Amnesia", the words flowing as easy as honey as Rhys delivers one of his loveliest performances as a singer in quite some time. As the record closes on a duet with Lily Cole, one gets a sense that "Selfies in the Sunset" is Gruff's bemusedly down-tempo take on the apocalypse, the seriousness of the lyrics undercut not at all by the lite-as-air, near-country twang of the tune.
And I think, rather than hit us with a mallet, Gruff Rhys has wisely decided to ease himself into our souls here on Babelsberg. The moments in the lyrics that strike us as indications of just how real the world's collapse seems on every level are made more vivid because they are set against music that is so beautiful and fragile.
Babelsberg will be out on Friday via Rough Trade.
[Photo: Alain Bib]