Gruff Rhys – Babelsberg (4 stars)

This article is from 2018

Gruff Rhys – Babelsberg

The fifth full-length release from the Welsh songwriter explores the myriad issues of modern times

Gruff Rhys didn't sit on the fence in the build-up to Brexit. 'You liberated me from pie and mash' might not sound like an earnest paean to freedom of movement, but in 'I Love EU' he offered an impassioned defence of how Wales has benefited from a strong relationship with Europe. His fifth solo album, Babelsberg, picks up the thematic torch with Rhys exploring the myriad issues of modern times with trademark humour, enlisting the help of Swansea-based composer Stephen McNeff and the 72-piece National Orchestra of Wales to add both bombast and subtlety.

The front half of Babelsberg contains one of the strongest run of songs on a Rhys album. Political themes are immediately apparent on the Glen Campbell country stylings of opener 'Frontier Man', in which a delusional male protagonist is 'just a monument to times gone wrong', and then again on 'The Club', where Rhys is betrayed and thrown from a place he 'built with his own two hands'.

The frantic rhythm and blues of 'Oh Dear!' and the Beatles-esque ballad 'Take That Call' bookend 'Limited Edition Heart'. This clear highlight pairs a great vocal melody with a stream of surreal lyrics that tackles the apocalypse and redemption, reaching a wonderful meta-peak when Rhys anticipates (and describes) the song's instrumental breakdown.

These tunes would almost certainly have stood up in their stripped-back guises, having been recorded in a three-day period with Kliph Scurlock (ex-Flaming Lips drummer), and multi-instrumentalists Stephen Black (Sweet Baboo) and Osian Gwynedd. But McNeff's arrangements elevate Babelsberg to a new level of greatness: 'Oh Dear!' possesses the urgency of Morricone's Western compositions, while on closing track 'Selfies in the Sunset' (a duet with Lily Cole), the woodwind playfully engages in call and response with the keys as the two turn the end of days into an Instagram story.

Out Fri 8 Jun on Rough Trade Records.

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