It was three years ago, before the release of Hotel Shampoo, that Gruff Rhys said: “I still haven’t mastered narrative in song; I’d love to be able to pin that down.” It’s a surprising thing for him to say, given that many of the songs he’s written over the last couple of decades are proper stories, even at their most offbeat.
Nonetheless, he’s tried his best to achieve that goal through a number of projects; perhaps the most notable being his second Neon Neon album (a collaboration with Boom Bip), Praxis Makes Perfect, which focused on the life of leftwing Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.
Praxis Makes Perfect, in scale, seems inferior when compared to American Interior, an affectionate tribute to fellow Welshman John Evans. Rhys spent most of 2012 retreading the path that he took more than two centuries ago; in 1792 Evans left the surroundings of Snowdonia to trek to the US, there to discover whether or not the Madogwys, a Welsh-speaking Native American tribe, existed. His odyssey took him through Omaha, St Louis, North Dakota and many other places along the way.
This record takes its bold theme even further by expanding it beyond a musical endeavour. A book has been written, there is a film of Rhys’ travels, and even an app has been made to complement the main attraction. Similarly, the influences on American Interior are wide-ranging. From the country bar–room swoon of Year Of The Dog to the electronic-tinged The Whether (Or Not), this is surely the most varied and grandiose project Rhys has released.
More important than the grand concept is the songwriting skills on show. There’s a certain amount of quality control to be expected when Rhys makes a new record and this is no exception – hitting all the right emotional notes and diverse enough to sustain the listener’s attention for 45 minutes. For gorgeous piano-led balladry, look no further than Walk Into The Wilderness or the glitchier The Swamp. For jittery acoustic pop, see 100 Unread Messages. Allweddellau Allweddol provides the LP’s sole moment of endearing quirkiness. All of this confirms what most people already knew about him and his skill set, but it’s still thoroughly enjoyable regardless.
Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be) comes right at the halfway point and is the most satisfying and rewarding song purely for his combination of gorgeous harmonies with a new-found sense of grandeur – driven by sharp stabs of bass and lifted skywards by duelling theatrical string arrangements and buzzing synthesisers. Elsewhere, the rather epic Iolo comes close to stealing the show with western film-esque galloping drums, and the sweeping title track introduces the album in a way that sets up great expectations like the opening scene of an eagerly-awaited summer blockbuster.
Such is the vibrancy and mastery of his craft, Rhys can be forgiven for some self-indulgence with Tiger’s Tale, a final instrumental that feels more like an overlong credits sequence. That’s just a minor blip though. A lot of attention will inevitably hone in on how American Interior was released, but hopefully that won’t overshadow the fact that it’s a wonderful and slightly surreal pop album, fascinating for its charming concept, yes, but also pretty damn enjoyable. Even if the creator himself thinks that he has yet to master the art of narrative, this is a story that’s worth repeat listens.