The fifth solo album by Super Furry Animals front man Gruff Rhys has been a while in the making, but it’s a textbook example of all good things being worth the wait. The majority of the songs on Babelsberg were written over two years ago, but Rhys wrote them specifically to be performed with the acclaimed composer Stephen McNeff.
Being a busy man, it took a while for McNeff to find a window in his schedule. Thankfully Rhys’ vision came to fruition, and the orchestrations, performed here by the BBC National Orchestra Of Wales, perfectly suit Rhys’ songs – there’s a gorgeously timeless quality to much of Babelsberg, bringing to mind classic songwriters like Scott Walker and Jimmy Webb.
As ever with Rhys, there’s a concept running through the album. However, where American Interior described a journey taken by his distant relative, explorer John Evans, Babelsberg is more concerned with global worries. It’s impossible to shake the shadow of Brexit, especially bearing in mind I Love EU, released by Rhys during the Referendum campaign. The chorus of “they threw me out of the club… into the darkest alley” seems sure not to refer to a misguided drunken night out, while there’s a poignancy to the opening Frontier Man, with its talk of effortlessly crossing borders.
The orchestrations really do add an extra depth to the songs – with a 72-piece orchestra at their disposal, it would have been easy for Rhys and McNeff to go over the top and adopt a more saccharine approach, but they’re canny enough never to get too overblown. Oh Dear! powers along on a string-driven rush, while Take That Call has a lovely woodwind arrangement running through it, and the strings softly rise and fall during the gorgeous Architecture Of Amnesia.
The lush orchestrations mean that the unique nature of Rhys’ lyrics can often be overlooked on first play. At once weighty and funny, there’s much to reward repeated listens. The brilliant Limited Edition Heart addresses subjects like “bison burgers” and military takeovers, before describing the “crazy solo… buzzing through the air like an olde worlde cry” before said olde worlde solo appears.
Despite the gloomy nature of many of Babelsberg’s songs, there’s an underlying sense of hope as well. The sheer romanticism of Frontier Man stirs the soul, and the lovely Negative Vibes suggests love, compassion and compromise as the way forward. Closing track Selfies In The Sunset sums up Rhys’ approach – a duet with actress Lily Cole, the title may suggest a swooningly romantic atmosphere, until you realise the sunset in question is from a nuclear blast. It’s the perfect ending to the album, with talk of “Mel Gibson… the worst Hamlet of his age” and the social media implications of taking the last photo on Earth (“selfies in the sunset will get you many likes”).
Admittedly, there’s a touch of Arcade Fire front man Win Butler’s infuriating tendency to preach at “the kids”‘ obsession with social media, but even on a song about a nuclear dystopia, there’s hope and heart in the closing line – “wake me in the morning at the beginning of a new dawn”. It’s a heart that’s filled to bursting on Babelsberg: you can’t really imagine a better soundtrack for the end of the world.