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Gruff Rhys - Babelsberg Music Album Reviews

Gruff Rhys - Babelsberg Music Album Reviews
The Super Furry Animals frontman has always been political, but he’s never sounded as spiteful as he does on this satirical portrait of the United States in 2018.

“God! Show me magic!” Gruff Rhys screamed on the first song of the first Super Furry Animals album, and 22 years later he’s still waiting patiently. Even as his band of psych-rock shapeshifters waded through all manner of global epidemics—pollution, war, technology overload, evangelicalism, and, um, vampire bats—he never lost his grace, sense of humor, or faith in the underdog. While the Furries have been on pause for much of the current decade, Rhys has continued juggling absurdity and profundity, albeit with a more delicate touch, as a solo artist. But the ceaseless stream of bad political news that flooded the past couple of years tested even this eternal optimist’s mettle. And when he wasn’t contemplating the doomsday clock, he had to keep an eye on the actual one: He recorded his new album, Babelsberg, in a Bristol studio that was set to be demolished for condo redevelopment.

On his previous solo effort, 2014’s American Interior, Rhys embarked on a musical road trip across the Midwest, retracing the footsteps of an 18th-century ancestor who ventured stateside in search of a mythic Welsh-speaking indigenous tribe. Babelsberg is another journey through the American landscape, but it forsakes speculative history to survey the nation’s current condition. Lyrically speaking, the album features some of the most sobering, spiteful songwriting of Rhys’ career, with little of his trademark whimsy to cut through the black-sky mood. If its omnipresent, string-swaddled arrangements (courtesy of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) initially feel like a soothing antidote to the bleak subject matter, they also serve an equally provocative purpose.

After all, the plush, countrypolitan sound they create is evocative of the bygone America to which so many MAGA-hat ideologues desperately want to revert. With Babelsberg, Rhys effectively delivers that crowd a flaming pile of dog shit encased in a rhinestone-studded jewelry box. The messenger arrives in the form of “Frontier Man,” the kind of smooth, harmony-rich cowpoke serenade you could imagine raising the curtains at the Grand Ole Opry in 1968. But when Rhys croons, “On the frontier of delusion/I’m your foremost frontier man,” he invokes the all-American outlaw archetype less as a model of valor and independence than as an example of pigheaded persistence in the face of contrary evidence.

Just as “Frontier Man” savors the friction between its medium and its message, much of Babelsberg lays on the symphonic opulence to conjure the shaky-handed unease of our times: After barreling out of the gates with a frantic gallop, “Oh Dear!” free-falls into the orchestra pit as Rhys shouts out the ominous title like a drowning victim begging for a life preserver. “Architecture of Amnesia,” meanwhile, uses its chamber-prog grandeur as a cudgel, with Rhys mounting a war march against “bigots” who hide behind the “blue birds” of social media to spew their hate. But even the album’s prettiest, most serene moments simmer with external tensions. “Drones in the City” is a gorgeous ambient ballad that has Rhys ruminating on the ambiguous meaning of “drones” and how their connotations—annoying remote-controlled gizmo vs. stealth killing machine—differ depending on where you are in the world. But in its final minute, the song’s burbling bassline accelerates as though it’s about to flatline, briefly transforming the album’s most splendorous song into its most anxious.

For all its lavish instrumentation and weighty subtext, however, Babelsberg never overwhelms Rhys’ preternatural gift for writing swoon-worthy melodies. “Limited Edition Heart” and “Negative Vibes” are among the finest, most impassioned songs he’s ever crafted—defiant soft-rock salvos that position a warm embrace as armor against the world crumbling around us. And if we are truly doomed, Rhys offers the grim reassurance that we’re too narcissistic to notice. Atop the chipper, ivory-tickling saunter of “Selfies in the Sunset,” Rhys and guest vocalist Lily Cole sardonically serenade each other about posing for a few last snaps in front of a “blazing red” mushroom-cloud backdrop, milking the apocalypse for Instagram likes. In the unsettled universe of Babelsberg, this is the way the world ends—not with a bang but a self-satisfied finger tap.

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