Gruff Rhys: Babelsberg review – never mind dystopia, feel the orchestra

(Rough Trade)

Perhaps Gruff Rhys has suffered as a result of his reputation as one of pop’s eccentrics. His band Super Furry Animals were always willing to confound, and his solo career – this is his fifth album, plus the Set Fire to the Stars soundtrack – has appeared dictated as much by whimsy as foresight. That’s meant his love of melody is sometimes overshadowed by the novelty: cor, you’ll never guess what he’s done now!

So one might be forgiven for approaching Babelsberg with a certain amount of trepidation, especially given that the promo bumf includes such poptastic phrases as “state-sponsored murder”, “numbing helplessness”, and “I was working on an opera about a post-apocalyptic Wales”.

You wouldn’t get that mood of despair from the music. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales make the whole thing sound like the lushest of early-70s MOR productions, and Frontier Man – musically, at least – could be one of Jimmy Webb’s songs for Glen Campbell, right down to the little hiccup in the drums before the first chorus, pinched straight from Galveston.

But this is not the frontier of Webb’s songs, where men learned hard lessons about themselves working on telephone lines or fighting in wars, but the outer edges of male delusion, where the only thing learned is entitlement. The further you get into the album, the more you realise how integral the orchestral arrangements are: as with Love’s Forever Changes, whose sound Babelsberg sometimes recalls, songs such as The Club and Oh Dear! would be solid but unremarkable 60s beat pop without the ornamentation that allows them to transcend their foundations. But, of course, Rhys’s gift is that he has the imagination to put full orchestral arrangements – 72 musicians! – on top of those slight songs to elevate them.

If anything, Babelsberg’s weaknesses lie in its lyrics, where the mood of anxiety and despair is vague and inchoate, and too diffuse to actually have an impact – it’s a record of impressions, rather than specifics. Where Rhys does get specific, suddenly the words hit home, as on Same Old Song, on which Rhys recounts how “coughing blood on an American tour / Left me bewildered / concerned for my future”. And like Forever Changes again, one keeps wondering whether an album so dismally inclined should be such a pleasure to listen to.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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