gRUFF RHYS Ba­bels­berg

Tower of power: Welsh ram­bler finds his Su­per Furry An­imus. By Jim Wirth

UNCUT - - New Albums -

IF you haven’t heard the one about the dis­graced car de­signer, chances are you haven’t heard the ones about the left­ist Ital­ian pub­lisher or the ex­plorer seek­ing the lost Welsh tribe in Patag­o­nia ei­ther. Su­per Furry An­i­mals tended to­wards the gid­dily ob­tuse in their pomp – Paul McCart­ney no­tably played “cel­ery and car­rot” on 2001’s Rings Around The World. How­ever, front­man Gruff Rhys has headed fur­ther into con­cep­tual space since – solo and with his Neon Neon side project. His mu­sic has con­sis­tently fizzed with ideas, but the 47-year-old’s de­sire to ex­plore ev­ery­thing through the prism of some­thing else has been wear­ing for the un­con­verted. Eyes may glaze over again at the news that his fifth solo al­bum com­bines mil­len­nial angst, a sour as­sess­ment of Mel Gib­son’s Ham­let and a gi­gan­tic or­ches­tra. Re­as­sur­ingly, though, Ba­bels­berg is nei­ther as big nor as clever as it seems.

Recorded in 2016 a week be­fore pro­ducer Ali Chant’s Bris­tol stu­dio, Toy­box, closed down to make way for a new res­i­den­tial devel­op­ment, Ba­bels­berg’s ba­sic tracks went into cold stor­age for the best part of 18 months while Rhys pon­dered what to do with them. Even­tu­ally, he de­cided to let com­poser Stephen McN­eff and the Na­tional Or­ches­tra of Wales place a widescreen back­drop be­hind his un­usu­ally small-scale songs of dis­il­lu­sion­ment. In the in­terim, the world turned up­side down. Bri­tain voted for Brexit, the United States voted for Trump, but Ba­bels­berg – its name lifted from a road sign Rhys spot­ted on tour – lost none of its fizz in the can, and sounds like a record of its mo­ment: ab­surd, be­wil­dered, and some­where be­yond a joke.

“I’m just a mon­u­ment to times gone wrong,” Rhys sings on Lee Ha­zle­wood­fired opener “Fron­tier Man”, doc­u­ment­ing the singer’s ad­vanc­ing years as well as the de­cline of West­ern civil­i­sa­tion, the life of the psy­che­delic troubadour seem­ingly los­ing a good deal of its John Wayne swag­ger be­yond the bad­lands of 40.

The Philly Soul-psy­chosis of “The Club” maps out the raw hu­mil­i­a­tion of the fad­ing cool-cat, past his prime and thrown out of “the club I built with my own two

hands”, and a sim­i­lar sense of in­cip­i­ent ob­so­les­cence un­der­scores Rhys’ mod­ern­life-is-rub­bish as­ser­tions else­where. There is sym­pa­thy for the over­heated free­lancers in their cof­fee-shop of­fices on the Kinksat-78 ma­nia “Oh Dear!”, while “Take That Call” be­moans a touch-screen world scrolling way too fast.

So far, so Grumpy Old Men, but Rhys’ imag­in­ings are more pro­found at their wildest. The Car­pen­ters-smooth “Lim­ited Edi­tion Heart” sees some­thing more mon­strous hid­ing be­hind the façade of late cap­i­tal­ism (“I’m keep­ing my eyes peeled for mil­i­tary takeover at night,” Rhys sings, only half jok­ing), while the sleepy “Drones In The City” re­casts sym­bols of op­pres­sion as re­as­sur­ing back­ground hum, the dreary devil you know.

Ba­bels­berg’s anx­i­ety peaks on the Robert Wy­att-flavoured “Ar­chi­tec­ture Of Am­ne­sia”, Rhys’ post­card from a fas­cist fu­ture. “And they built a wall, switched on search­lights on the brim, and in­vented a pariah at which ev­ery­one was shout­ing,” Rhys keens, the stuff of fever delir­ium in 2016; stan­dard head­lines two years on.

Such des­per­ate days might seem to de­mand more rad­i­cal noise, but Rhys’ lim­i­ta­tions suit him here, even though “Same Old Song” bri­dles at the mun­dan­ity of his craft (Rhys tells Un­cut he some­times feels he “should be mak­ing ground­break­ing ab­stract elec­tronic mu­sic”). Hum­bler truths have their place, though: “Sing a song of love gone wrong,” he shrugs. “And the ac­co­lades un­zip their shack­les.”

Closer “Selfies In The Sun­set” is love­lier still. A sweet’n’sour duet with mod­el­turned-poly­math Lily Cole, it en­vi­sions the ab­sur­dity of the doomed mil­lions tak­ing one last cam­er­a­phone snap at the mo­ment of the apoc­a­lypse (“Count to three and pout your lips, hit the flash with your fin­ger­tips”), but finds a pro­found beauty as the earth dies beam­ing. “The back­drop’s blaz­ing red,” purrs Rhys, “and ev­ery­one is equal in the val­ley of the dead.”

Ba­bels­berg, mean­while, is Rhys’ great lev­eller, per­haps the first record of his ca­reer that doesn’t de­mand a quadro­phonic sound sys­tem, a slide show, a de­tailed ex­pla­na­tion or a know­ing wink. It’s warm and weird, but sud­denly no stranger than the world around it. In sur­real times, he fi­nally makes sense.

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