American Interior certainly sounds like the most ambitious Rhys project since he belonged in a bigger band.
Let’s get the negatives about Gruff Rhys’ new album out of the way first: “The Whether (Or Not)” has an unfortunately clunking bass guitar that’s practically impossible to not hear until the song pads out, while “The Swamp” is as melodically dirge-y as the song title would suggest. Meanwhile, the attempts at creating a holistic listening experience are appreciated, but not well-executed. This can be in little additions like the throwaway intro and outro to “The Whether (Or Not)” and “The Last Conquistador,” respectively, but also full-on songs like “Tiger’s Tale”, continuing the musical theme of “Year of the Dog,” which wasn’t much of a song to begin with (if you want a bipartite song with a pedal steel guitar, do yourself a favor and check out Pavement’s “Father to a Sister of Thought”).
But broadly speaking, paradoxically, the best and worst part about the album is its concept. After learning that he is the descendent of Welsh explorer John Evans, who set out to America to find the Mandan, a group of Native Americans that supposedly housed Welsh Natives as well (Evans found the Mandan, but no Welsh among them), Gruff Rhys toured America with the same route to find his grave in 2012, and American Interior is the product of that tour (not just that, it also produced a film, a book and an interactive app). American Interior certainly sounds like the most ambitious Rhys project since he belonged in a bigger band. Instrumentally speaking, songs are filled out by strings (“Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be)”), piano (“Lost Tribes” especially, but the twinkly ones on “Liberty” go a long way) to pedal steel guitar (“Year of the Dog” and “Tiger’s Tale”), while the man executes a range of genres from soft rock (“The Last Conquistador”) to electronic (“The Swamp”).
But because the songs are often about the tour or the people, the lyrics are often unrelatable, with one obvious exception: “100 Unread Messages”, whose chorus goes, “When you said that you loved me, I knew it wasn’t true / One hundred unread messages, and not a single note from you” (with the number of unread messages increases in size as the song progresses). Meanwhile, the few songs that recall the quirkiness and pride of other nations of Super Furry Animals both have choruses that grate: “Allweddellau Allweddol,” with its children’s choir, and “Iolo” (named after Iolo Morgannwg, who was supposed to undertake John Evans’ original trip; pronounced “YOLO”), with its title repeated ad nauseum.
Yet the opening half of the album is one of the strongest stretches Rhys has to his name. Here, every chorus connects, but there are plenty of other hooks abound, from the sprinkling of the title words throughout the verses on “American Interior” to the jangly measure punctuating “The Whether (Or Not).” Meanwhile, “Lost Tribes” features a wonderful counterpointing melody during its own chorus. The greatest draw, however, is the aforementioned “100 Unread Messages”. Here, Rhys enlists the help of former Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock to lay down a simultaneously lyrical and propulsive foundation while Gruff Rhys elastically stretches out his voice as far as he can, launching into falsetto or dropping to his lowest register at a moment’s whim.
Like countless artists before him, Gruff Rhys has the misfortune of having every new album needlessly compared to his previous work with a more famous band, in this case, Super Furry Animals. Speaking of Pavement, most recently, critics everywhere found room to bring up the decade-removed Wowee Zowee to Wig Out at Jagbags. It’s understandable, just regrettable; if you’re hoping for something like Radiator, I’ll save you the time and just suggest you spin that one again, but if you’re open to hearing something on its own merits, American Interior might surprise you. It certainly did me.