Album Reviews

Gruff Rhys – Sadness Sets Me Free

(Rough Trade) UK release date: 26 January 2024

The Super Furry Animals front man’s fresh-sounding latest offers hope and light for what’s ahead

Gruff Rhys - Sadness Sets Me Free

He may be 25 albums into his career, but Gruff Rhys is looking to make his music sound fresher than ever. He is doing this through the results of serendipitous encounters with artists and musicians, known and unknown, making the room for those encounters to blossom into full blown collaborations.

This is the case with Sadness Sets Me Free, recorded in a three-day blitz in March 2022 in Paris, where Gruff and his band hooked up with This Is The Kit singer Kate Stables, whose own album he was to produce that year. Stables sang backing vocals in the sessions, contributing to an album where Gruff’s melodies are given instinctive musical backing from pianist Osian Gwynedd, drummer Kliph Scurlock and a new addition, double bassist Huw V Williams. It means Gruff is almost completely acoustic for this album, a far cry from his Super Furry Animals days when psychedelic synths and techno and krautrock references ruled the roost. No matter for SFA fans, though – they have Das Koolies to tick that particular box.

Sadness Sets Me Free is an attention-grabbing title for Gruff’s album, especially in the morose days of January. Look at the track titles and you’ll see how much he has been keeping up with UK news – along with the title track sits They Sold My Home to Build A Skyscraper, Cover Up The Cover Up, I Tended My Resignation and the telling Silver Lining (Lead Balloon). On paper, songs of this ilk should be weighing the listener down, but the reality is different as Rhys realises his ideas in music of blissful freedom.

As a vocalist he has rarely sounded better, singing with a hint of a smile as the title track hones into view. “In the nightclub of my mind, I’m doing cocaine in the cloakroom”, he sings, “come on, set me free from my vain and selfish ways”. The musicians respond in kind. Gwynedd’s instinctive and airy piano contributions are the ideal foil to the choice lyrics, prompted by Scurlock’s sensitive drumming and the lovely grainy sound of Williams’ bass. Stables, too, is a welcome addition, the two voices dovetailing beautifully to the accompaniment of a sparingly used string quartet.

We move from the slide guitar of the title track, evoking a dusty outback near one of the malls where Rhys might buy some records, to the sidelong glance of They Sold My Home To Build A Skyscraper, a perky bossa nova where we are urged to “be the beacon in the gloom”. The album rarely dips below excellent – the musical paragraphs on Bad Friend perfectly proportioned, the starry Celestial Candyfloss charming the pop connoisseur and the melting I Tendered My Resignation tugging at the heartstrings.

Rhys is a clever artist well capable of making those first musical thoughts stick. As he moves through his 50s he is now firmly established as one of the UK’s finest songwriters, making an album that should be treasured through the dark winter months. Sadness Sets Me Free offers hope and light for what’s ahead, in spite of the political slurry we find ourselves wading through.

buy Gruff Rhys MP3s or CDs
Spotify Gruff Rhys on Spotify

More on Gruff Rhys
Gruff Rhys @ Kings Place, London
Gruff Rhys interview: “Political activists are my heroes. We live in very, very sobering times”
Gruff Rhys – Sadness Sets Me Free
Gruff Rhys – Seeking New Gods
Gruff Rhys – Pang!