Gruff Rhys – Babelsberg review

Secret Meeting score: 82

by Joseph Purcell

Gruffudd Maredudd Bowen Rhys – the enigmatic leader of the Super Furry Animals and all-round Welsh national treasure – has never struggled for innovative ideas. And as well as being the creative drive behind the psychedelic pop group, he has worked on projects as varied as Neon Neon with Boom Bip (achieving a Mercury Nomination in the process), and also contributed to collaborations with artists such as Mogwai, De La Soul & Gorillaz.

Rhys’ new album, Babelsburg – the follow up to the critically acclaimed American Interior, and his first back on Rough Trade Records since the brilliant, Candy Lion – was recorded back in 2016, and sees him once again pushing his creative envelope as he is accompanied by the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Opening Babelsburg is its fantastic lead single, Frontier Man. A track that reeks of Lee Hazelwood at his pompous best, as Rhys croons with a gentle, eminently catchy quality. Growing throughout, Rhys – with his effortlessly cool, trademark delivery – espouses, ‘on the frontier of delusion, I’m your foremost frontier man’, as the horns elevate the song to a terrific crescendo.

Second track, The Club, follows with an urgent change of pace, and its extremely memorable chorus – ‘threw me out the club, into the darkest ally’ – ensures you can’t help but get caught up even on first listen. While Limited Edition Heart is a slice of 60’s sunshine laden pop that again demonstrates Rhys’ marvellous vocal. It recalls memories of his 2003 hit, Hello Sunshine, and conjuring images of hazy summer days, picnics in the park and long summer afternoons.

The creeping film noir esque piano opening of Take That Call quickly bursts into a bright bouncy festival of fun, with the joyous backing continuing the theme of uplifting, feel good music – a theme that permeates most of the way through Babelsburg. That is, before Drones in the City finds Rhys in much more restrained form, as exquisitely laden strings caress against toy keyboards and elevate the song. Thus enabling Rhys to wheeze a monotonous vocal delivery that is more spoken word than anything else on the record, and gives it the feel of a reflective centrepiece.

Same Old Song’s opening lyrics, ‘coughing up blood on an American tour, left me bewildered, concerned for my future’, provide an emphatic juxtaposition to the bounding happiness of the Disney-evoking sounds of the music, highlighting Rhys’ talent for making tracks of incredibly difficult lyrical content easy on the ear and bizarrely uplifting. While final track, Selfies in the Sunset, is a simple twinkling serenade of a duet with model and actress, Lily Cole, with their voices intertwining perfectly to provide a real heartfelt slice of pop, that evokes the best moments of The Beautiful South, and Nancy and Lee.

As a fan of much of Rhys’ back catalogue, his innovation and constant desires to break from the norm have always been what fascinates so much about his work. The bold step he has taken here has once more paid off across this fantastic album of stunning orchestral melodies and soundscapes – to once more highlight Rhys’ position as one of alternative music’s most loved sons.

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