Released domestically after an eight month wait, North Americans can finally hear for themselves what all the fuss is about in respect to Rings Around the World, the pop rock opus by Welsh band Super Furry Animals. Fans of the band who scrambled to buy imported copies of the album last summer can already attest that it was easily one of the best albums of 2001, and by far one of the most fascinating CDs to come out of the UK in years. Rife with energy and overflowing with ideas, experiments, and glorious pop hooks, not to mention two high profile guest appearances by John Cale and Paul McCartney, Super Furry Animals make a huge, bold statement with this album: they want to be a great band, not merely a good band, and with Rings Around the World, they just might have accomplished that feat.
Following the independent release of Mwng in 2000 (after four years with the doomed Creation Records), the UK branch of Sony signed them, and basically gave them carte blanche in order to enable the guys put together the best album they could. Plus, cash. Loads and loads of cash. The band took the opportunity to completely go overboard, using every single studio bell and whistle they could get a hold of. The resulting album is a musical mishmash we haven’t heard since The Dandy Warhols’ Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, so wildly varied musically that it’s impossible to categorize, unless your local record store has a special section for Britpop-techno-soul-country-folk-satire artists.
Lyrically, though, Rings Around the World, despite some very oblique moments (so what is the alternate route to Vulcan Street, anyway?), has a more consistent theme, serving somewhat as a post-millenial state-of-the-world address. Singer/lyricist Gruff Rhys touches on global warming (“Alternate Route to Vulcan Street”), homelessness (“Sidewalk Serfer Girl”), the online global community (“Rings Around the World”), religious zealots (“Run Christian Run”), gentrification (“Juxtapozed with U”), the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal (“Presidential Suite”), and a caustic condemnation of George W. Bush’s stance on the death penalty (“No Sympathy”). At first glance it looks like Rhys takes himself and his music far too seriously, especially in the bitter “No Sympathy”, but he keeps things on an even keel with a dry sense of humor that comes close to matching the wit of Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, something best exemplified in “Presidential Suite”, where Rhys opines, “Honestly / Do we need to know if he really came inside her mouth? / How will all this affect me now and later?” Sometimes it sounds like Rhys has too much to get off his chest, as he self-deprecatingly sings in “Shoot Doris Day”, “I’ve some feelings that I can’t get through / I’ll just binge on crack and tiramisu.”
Super Furry Animals’ lofty lyrical themes would have completely taken listeners’ attentions away from the music, if the music on Rings Around the World weren’t so highly contagious. As mentioned, the songs’ musical styles are all over the map, but the variety makes the listening experience all the more fun. “Sidewalk Serfer Girl” sounds like glammed-up Beach Boys. The title track sounds so much like ELO that it blows away everything on last year’s ELO reunion album. “It’s Not the End of the World?” sounds like any of Blur’s best ballads. “(A) Touch Sensitive” is an effective attempt at trip-hop. “Shoot Doris Day” resembles 1980s Elvis Costello. “No Sympathy” starts off as a Crosby, Stills, and Nash folk ballad before devolving into electronic noise. “Presidential Suite” (with John Cale on piano) has a lovely Bacharach-like melody. “Run Christian Run” evokes Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd combined with gospel. “Fragile Happiness” lifts its vocal harmonies from the Velvet Underground’s third album. It all sounds a trifle psychotic, but I haven’t even gotten to the really good stuff yet.
“Juxtapozed With U”, the album’s first UK single, seamlessly combines soul, electronic pop, and social commentary in an odd mix that works surprisingly well. It begins with the band playing laid-back funk, backed up by a string arrangement so lush it sounds like it was written by Curtis Mayfield. When the first verse starts, the song immediately, but not abruptly, shifts to an electronic arrangement, with Rhys’ vocoder-enhanced voice critiquing urban society’s rising tensions as the cost of living increases: “It’s easy when you know how / To get along without / Biff! Bang! Pow!” The breezy soul arrangement comes in again in the chorus as Rhys shifts into Cocker Mode, wryly singing, “You’ve got to tolerate all those people that you hate / I’m not in love with you / But I won’t hold that against you,” as the song carries on, providing three unforgettable minutes of pop perfection.
Even better, though, is the four-minute burst of demented genius, “Receptacle for the Respectable”. It starts off with a handclap-accompanied, upbeat section that sounds most like Paul McCartney’s solo work, complete with catchy “ba-ba-ba” harmonies. Suddenly the song shifts into an Abbey Road-like bridge that’s half as fast, then shortly after, the song breaks down again into a slower coda in a sly nod to Brian Wilson’s Smiley Smile, as McCartney, in what has to be the album cameo coup of 2001, reprises his musical contribution to the Beach Boys’ “Vegetables”, loudly chewing carrots and celery to the beat of the song. Before you can get over the sound of someone rudely chomping veggies in your ear, the song gathers momentum again, and concludes in noisy Nine Inch Nails fashion (what else?), with Rhys doing his best death metal vocal impersonation. “Receptacle for the Respectable” packs so much into one little song that you feel immediately compelled to hit the repeat button on your CD player, just to marvel at it again.
Those people who were patient enough to wait for the domestic release of the album will be rewarded with an excellent bonus CD comprising of B-sides lifted from the album’s UK singles. These outtakes from the Rings . . . sessions, which include the whacked-out prog-rock tune “Tradewinds”, the country-tinged “The Roman Road”, the doleful “Patience”, the jaunty “Happiness Is a Warm Pun”, the minimally-produced “All the Shit U Do”, and the should’ve-been-on-the-album “Gypsy Space Muffin”, are better than most of the new music that will come out this year.
Rings Around the World might be stylistically all over the place, and some people may think it sounds like Super Furry Animals are desperately trying to show the world how clever they are, but it’s so much fun to listen to, that it hardly matters. It’s a near-perfect album, and we all should be thankful there are bands out there willing to throw everything they’ve got into a record just to see what happens. Sometimes albums like these turn out to be colossal artistic failures, but there’s always the slight chance, as in the case of Rings Around the World, that it just might be a resounding success.