‘Pang’ is generally a negative word, a brief but intense shot of feeling associated with regret, jealousy or a deficiency of something. Gruff Rhys, on the evidence of his sixth solo album, is looking to turn it into a positive.
If anything the pangs here are to be felt in society and politics, of which more later. First the music, which is written by Rhys and sung in Welsh, with ‘a couple of verses in Zulu and an English title’, as the press release states. The album is produced by Muzi, the pair meeting through Damon Albarn’s recent Africa Express project, in which Rhys excelled. When talking with musicOMH the South African producer described his collaborator as ‘amazing’, and went on to speak of ‘the power of opening up your heart and letting people into your world’.
Rhys has certainly done that, the result being some of the most persuasive rhythms of his career to date. When writing with the Super Furry Animals there was always a rhythmic freedom, the band never shying away from a sashay or two in songs like Northern Lites, but here Rhys brings those elements to the front.
Bae Bae Bae has a propulsive bass drum that wouldn’t be out of place on a Coldcut track. Old Bys, too, has a steady thrum of percussion running through it. Rhys gets percussive intent from his lyrics, which can be simultaneously meaningful and mischievous. Digidigidol is a song praising all things digital, with “mobile devices full of amazing cultural fluid”, but “only for wires to cross. There’s not guarantee”, he sings in Welsh, “maybe all who echo are just dirty bots?” The chorus is almost shyly repeated, shadowed by a small brass section.
Niwl o Anwiredd (Fog Of Lies) draws a sharp parallel with the political climate in the world and the UK. “There is no light, only confusion”, sings Rhys in his lower register, calmly assessing the situation in the company of a disembodied vocal backing and rueful trumpet. “Pass the pit, through the darkness, the rotten stench of compromise.”
These worries are dressed with music at peace with itself and its surroundings, making as much resourceful use of digital and electronic possibilities in an intimate studio setting as previous album Frontier Man did with an orchestra.
It is inspiring to see Gruff Rhys leading from the front in this way, singing his own songs but opening them up for collaboration far and wide across continents. As always with Rhys his Welsh language material is openly accessible, the provided translation confirming the subtly emotive input he brings to each song. He communicates with unforced musical intensity no matter the tongue, and the lovely production touches on the outside add another string to his bow.
With Muzi he has made some of his freshest music yet, and though the album is gone in just half an hour (leaving a pang of regret, if you will) it leaves a lasting mixture of happiness and thoughtfulness. This is music providing inspiration and solace for our dark surroundings.