Welsh musician Gruff Rhys has made a career out of crafting lovably quirky yet poignant tunes. Whether as the mastermind behind Super Furry Animals, the co-leader of Neon Neon, or as the creative guide behind multiple other projects, Rhys’ idiosyncratic vibrancy, eccentricity, and warmth ensures that whatever he touches turns to musical gold. Unsurprisingly, that holds true for Seeking New Gods, his seventh solo LP. Feeling more like a follow-up to 2018’s Babelsberg than to 2019’s more esoteric Pang! the record consistently satisfies due to its blend of synthy orchestral majesty and instantly charming songwriting. In fact, it’s virtually as delightful and robust as anything else he’s done.
Whereas past albums revolved around people, this one began as a biography of Mount Paektu (an active volcano situated between North Korea and China). Before long, Rhys expanded the concept to allow the LP to act as an allegory for how entire cultures appear and disappear around geography that remains unchanged. Helping him realize his vision are the same musicians that brought Babelsberg to life: pianist Osian Gwynedd, drummer Kliph Scurlock, bassist Stephen Black, and singers Lisa Jên and Mirain Haf Roberts. (Gavin Fitzjohn offers some brass accentuations, too.) Together, they make Seeking New Gods gorgeously retro, modern, and timeless all at once.
The opener “Mausoleum of My Former Self” kicks off the set superbly, establishing the guiding flavor of the sequence with its catchy and luscious template. There’s a classic rock singer/songwriter quality to its easygoing melodies and lyrics (“A crater for the greater good / Smoking away as it should / Shrugging like it doesn’t care / For a fanfare that elevates hair”). Meanwhile, the dense and colorful instrumentation (including horns and piano), coupled with the backing vocals of Jên and Roberts, can’t help but conjure the irresistible jovial succulence of, say, Super Furry Animals’ Rings Around the World and Phantom Power. In total, the piece instantly puts you in a good mood while revealing how festive and accessible Rhys and company are.
While a few other tunes—such as the surprisingly Camel-esque “Loan Your Loneliness” and the psychedelically raucous “Hiking in Lightning”—are similarly energetic and flamboyant, several other tunes take a more pensive and precious approach. In particular, “Can’t Carry On” is like a dreamier and more coherent Flaming Lips composition whose beautiful harmonies and vivid elements never lose their magic. Afterward, the title track manages to be simultaneously moving, graceful, and slightly off-kilter before “The Keep” acts as the pseudo lovechild of mid-1960s Beach Boys and Turtles.
As for the penultimate “Everlasting Joy”, it’s perhaps the most purposefully rigged track here, with a straightforward verse/chorus combo in conjunction with an enticing keyboard motif that makes it as trippy as it is touching. It also provides the perfect preamble for the finale “Distant Snowy Peaks”, which ostensibly alludes to Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” as the backdrop for its syrupy sense of optimism and finality. Its closing movement—which adds several vocal layers and a smorgasbord of dazzling textures—is easily among the most exquisitely touching passages Rhys has ever penned.
Seeking New Gods is another wonderfully adventurous, multifaceted, stirring, and all-around eternal collection. It’s among his finest solo works, with a consistently tight synthesis of radio-friendly immediacy and riveting instrumental discovery that’s always made Rhys such a singular artist. True, it’s not as edgy or wacky as some of his previous work, but that only helps guarantee that it’ll appeal to just about anyone and everyone who hears it. It’s a quintessential and essential entry into his catalog that absolutely should not be missed.