Depending on how you choose to perceive it, the band's orchestral seventh album is either one of its greatest achievements or one of its most pedestrian.
For even the most hardcore Super Furry Animals fan, 2005 has been a year of excess. It's a year that has seen the release of Songbook, an excellent collection of the band's singles; Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, frontman Gruff Rhys's lo-fi solo debut; and the group's entry in the Under the Influence compilation series. All of this impulsive, indulgent activity, arriving mostly in the form of arguably non-essential releases, is the kind of behavior you'd expect from a band looking to cover up something. Perhaps the upcoming studio album would disappoint, and the Furries, paranoid and self-conscious, were buttering us up with oodles of "minor" works. Like, guess what, kids, the Ferris wheel's busted so, like, here's some fried dough.
Depending on how you choose to perceive it, Love Kraft is either one of the band's greatest achievements or one of its most pedestrian. For this, their seventh studio record, the Furries retreat deeper into the silk-lined sanctum of orchestral rock. Love Kraft is how the Furries learn to stop worrying and love the bomb. It's the perfect soundtrack for floating on a mushroom cloud toward that inevitable doomsday: it's aware but not alarmist, gorgeously accepting of fate even if it's dying to say it told you so. If Rings Around the World and Phantom Power, the band's two most recent releases and two of its best, were sarcastic proclamations of an impending human-instigated apocalypse, Love Kraft is determined to go with the doomed flow. There are no veiled protests here; the Furries will just ride this one out, beautifully. "Kiss me with apocalypse," Rhys puns on the ambitious opening track "Zoom!", because if he can't beat 'em, he'll join 'em (winking all the way, of course).
Love Kraft swoons and reels from that solicited kiss, surrendering to whatever the world's got in store. It continues to surf on the creative plateau planted by 2003's Phantom Power; there's nothing unexpected here, none of the restless reinventions that defined their five-album run from 1996-2001. If anything, it's a doughier, more velveteen version of Phantom Power -- with the exception of "Zoom!" (a druid rock epic where the orchestra steals off for the outer reaches of the stratosphere) and the first single "Lazer Beam" (a cartoony pop scrawl of wriggling squiggles), Love Kraft is the Furries in plush bathrobe mode. Even when Rhys evokes his overtly leftist tendencies ("You say history will be your judge / But the jury's whipped, gagged, and drugged"), they're delivered via a '70s AM glaze that speak more to luscious comfort than to political agendas.
The record's MVP is (perhaps tellingly, given the sometimes lackluster effort) an honorary Furry: the High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan, who contributes bulbous, Serge Gainsbourg-approved orchestral arrangements to a majority of the songs. O'Hagan's brass and strings sink into the record's cracks, equal parts Eastern and abstract, heavy on blue notes and sudden subversions, coddling them with cradle-like efficiency. It's an audacious collaboration, one that employs an imposing choir to rack the thin frame of "Zoom!" and weeps woozy strings all over tender ballads like "Cabin Fever" and "Walk You Home".
O'Hagan may also be Love Kraft's accidental savior. It's very possible that the record wouldn't be nearly as interesting without his contributions. The songs' foundations are quite simple; the compelling action occurs in the string-laden overdubs. "Zoom!", which is simply one descending progression repeated for nearly seven minutes, offers an evolutionary mirage in the barrage of expressive instrumentation -- it's all magical bursts of smoke curling around a stationary center. Likewise, each successive verse in "Psyclone!" slyly moves up a whole step while retaining the same form. Its complexities reside not in the catchy, percussive refrain, but in the crossbred counterpoint. "Cloudberries" consists of three sections, each examining the exact same chord progression and melody from a different stylistic angle. Love Kraft may not boast the Furries' strongest collection of songs, but it does make us think about new and interesting ways to look at ordinary musical constructions.
For the first time, four of the five Furries share lead vocal duties. The weaker moments are, incidentally, sung by band members not named Gruff Rhys. There's nothing wrong with the different voices; the songs themselves just aren't so strong. "The Horn" and "Walk You Home" are relatively undemanding, incidental pieces of soft pop, but "Back on a Roll" is the obligatory Ringo moment where irony stumbles into folly. It's a pseudo-stab at classic rock road warrioring that most likely ranks as the band's weakest album track to date. The short instrumental "Oi Frango" is harmless on its own, but lumped in with the other instances of sub-par tunes, increases the killer-to-filler ratio to an unnecessary high.
If Love Kraft were three or four songs shorter, would it be one of the Super Furry Animals' best records? Maybe. Maybe, like Glen emphatically snorts in Raising Arizona, this one's a way-homer: we'll only get it on the way home. Maybe we'll need the assistance of hindsight and a terrifying shared experience. Maybe some day, far into the future, we'll listen to Rhys playfully cautioning the dinosaurs, "Pterodactyl, brontosaurus, tyrannosaurus rex / Gather around" and think, he was talking to us. Not that we would have listened.