Where, or what, is Babelsberg – it’s alliterative, ideological, illogical, geographical, historical, biographical, prophetic. From the mind of Gruff Rhys, anything is possible and everything is permissible, and on the Super Furry Animals frontman’s fifth solo outing, all these notions swirl within commentaries and first person vignettes.
Recorded in a three-day burst over two years ago with ex-Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock, and multi-instrumentalists Stephen Black and Osian Gwynedd, the gestation of ‘Babelsberg’ began around the time that Gruff’s ‘Candylion’ musical theatre show was in full swing and simmered over the ensuing months and tours. At Gruff’s behest, eighteen months after the initial sessions, orchestral arrangements were heaped upon the ten songs by Irish-born/Swansea-based composer Stephen McNeff, giving them the lush veneer that flutters between the Georges – Martin and Gershwin – and a slew of 20th century influences and mediums.
McNeff’s strings feature prominently, the organic foil to the increasingly rich timbre of Gruff’s unmistakable inflections. His vocal moves from the deep country croon of Frontier Man to the falsetto of Negative Vibes, the album’s longest and – despite the title – most sanguine track (“You and I can conquer all the negative vibes/ And get on with our lives together”).
While there is a vaguely portentous hue to Babelsberg’s lyrical content – beyond the “frontier of delusion” of the opening track; in the lovely Limited Edition Heart (“Foraging the future for food”); through Selfies in the Sunset (“Everyone is equal in the valley of the dead”) – it’s when Gruff turns the lens inward that the sharp focus becomes most jarring.
On Super Furry Animals’ Run-away – a track from ‘Hey Venus!’ a decade previous – Gruff’s droll spoken-word intro explains: “This song is based on a true story…which would be fine if it wasn’t autobiographical“. Immediately on Same Old Song, Gruff gets into the grit of the path he has chosen, and it’s one that has claimed many a storyteller before him – “Coughing blood on an American tour/ Left me bewildered/ Concerned for my future/ The doctor told my with little pity/ The consequences of all that gluttony.” It’s a sharp dose of reality that leaps out from the warmth and low-key theatricality of the record.
Ultimately, Gruff’s latest is a largely mid-tempo album that evokes the spirit of Burt Bacharach or Kurt Wagner (particularly the string-laden melodramatics of Lambchop’s ‘Mr. M’) as much as it does that of Jimmy Webb and Gram Parsons. He duets with actor Lily Cole on the album’s final track, Selfies in the Sunset, where “Mel Gibson howls with rage/ The worst Hamlet of his age.” Apocalyptic implications and caustic couplets abound, while a duet of disarming amiability and a gorgeous melody deliver the final, sweet sting. ‘Babelsberg’ is one of Gruff’s more subtly cohesive creations. It may not have the expansive conceptual reach of 2014’s ‘American Interior’, but as a simple collection of songs, it may well be his finest yet.