Best known as the lead singer for Welsh darling Super Furry Animals (who’ve produced some of the most vibrantly fetching, characteristic, and imaginative pop music of the last 20 years), Gruff Rhys has also spent considerable time as a prolific collaborator and lone artist. In particular, his solo work, while clearly possessing its own identity, upholds the elegant warmth, charm, and emotion that made Super Furry Animals so appealing. In other words, nearly everything he touches is special, and his latest outing, Babelsberg, is no exception. Blending his trademark playful but pensive songwriting with cinematic orchestration (that evokes late ’60s/early ’70s icons like Tom Jones and Jimmy Webb), the LP is a hugely satisfying listen.
As its press release notes, the title Babelsberg was chosen because Rhys was searching for “a name that evoked the Tower of Babel—people building towers to reach an idea of heaven… but maybe creating a kind of hell”. It was recorded in three days with Ali Chant (who also produced 2014’s American Interior) and support from SFA drummer Kliph Scurlock (ex-Flaming Lips) and multi-instrumentalists Osian Gwynedd and Stephen Black. To capture the symphonic flair of the full-length, Rhys used countrymen composer Stephen McNeff (with whom he’d been working on “an opera about a post-apocalyptic Wales”). Lyrically, the album explores “the smoke and mirrors of the division at the heart of our major cities… and the rise and rise of the delusional male ego”, among other things. As such, Babelsberg once again finds Rhys doing what he does best: tackling serious topics with an idiosyncratic undercurrent of bittersweet, poignant friendliness.
“Frontier Man“—which is about “the pitfalls of whimsical behaviour and the cult of personality… . Strong yet often deluded characters thinking in completely irrational ways and making fantastical plans”—opens the record with the measured magnificence of a late-night lounge act. Filled with lovely horns, punchy percussion, backing female vocalists, and Rhys’ endearingly lackadaisical and tongue-in-cheek deliveries, it’s an instantly tempting entry point. Fortunately, several later entries, like the delightfully energetic “Oh Dear!”, the lusciously reflective “Selfies in the Sunset”, and the LP’s two catchiest pieces, “The Club” and “Negative Vibes” are also very enjoyable.
Although those tracks are pleasing, Babelsberg stands out most during its more sorrowful and graceful moments. For instance, “Limited Edition Heart” oozes dreamy and retro romantic meditation, while “Take That Call” is wonderfully bright, poppy, and even a bit psychedelic (conjuring SFA’s great “Ohio Heat” in the process). Afterward, “Same Old Song” is an exquisitely symphonic and cathartic piano ballad, whereas the penultimate “Architecture of America” steals the whole show with its nuanced orchestral melancholy, heartrending melodies, bittersweet storytelling, and grand scale. It’s a gripping, touching, and multifaceted gem that captures Rhys at his peak.
Babelsberg is another great effort from the always distinguished singer/songwriter. Specifically, Rhys trades some of his characteristic quirkiness, colorfulness, and experimentation for classier and more unified slices of orchestral pop. In doing so, he offers a wise and mature sequence whose refined yet complex splendor allows it to achieve its own identity while also offering enough trademark elements to entice fans of his past triumphs.