Gruff Rhys has always been brazen with his political beliefs, particularly in the run up and aftermath of Brexit back in 2016. Before the result, Rhys released ‘I Love EU’ which was “An attempt to make an emotional case for Mother Europe – this flawed, fantastic, potentially utopian megaclub that I’ve been lucky enough to grow up in”. Around the same time, he wrote the ten songs that would appear on his new album, Babelsberg, which explores those similar themes of political turbulence. So why the wait?
Rhys was waiting for Swansea-based composer Stephen McNeff, and the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales (the Doctor Who orchestra no less, which explains the grandiose, cosmic energy of a few cuts on the record); which not only continues Rhys’ cinematic edge started by 2014’s Dylan Thomas biopic Set Fire to the Stars, but gives Babelsberg a bombastic, flamboyant and country-tinged atmosphere that evokes Glen Campbell, Scott Walker and, even, Serge Gainsbourg. There’s no doubt about it here, no matter how great Rhys’ songs are, McNeff is the key player here; constantly elevating Rhys’ sometimes surreal, sometimes playful and sometimes downright heartfelt lyrics with aplomb.
It could be argued that Babelsberg sees Rhys at his most political, constantly prodding and provoking a debate. It’s made abundantly clear on the Gainsbourg-esque opener ‘Frontier Man’, which sees its central male figure: “Just a monument to times gone wrong”, while ‘The Club’ explores the bitterness of leaving Europe and the pick-yourself-up attitude many had to employ to combat it. Rhys croons: “They threw me out of the club, into the darkest alley,” sincerely echoing the thoughts of, let’s be honest, pretty much every Gruff Rhys fan. Importantly, however, the song climaxes at a moment of boldness: “I pick myself up into the blazing sunset.” Rhys announces defiantly. It’s absolutely classic Rhys, and a real highlight on Babelsberg.
‘Oh Dear!’, the agitated, delirious number exploring a quasi-sophisticated style of rhythm and blues, sees the orchestra come to the fore beautifully. Possessing the cultivated atmosphere of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti-Western compositions, Rhys straddles the urgent musical backdrop like Clint Eastwood riding off into the sunset. Likewise, ‘Limited Edition Heart’ again focuses on Rhys’ swooning vocal melody delivery but, this time, with a surge of lyrics brimming with surrealism that explore the apocalypse and redemption. No doubt the finest moment of the record, it sees Rhys instinctively investigate the world of a meta narrative as he anticipates, and subsequently describes, the song’s instrumental breakdown. It’s a wacky, truly brilliant moment, that could only really come from an artist of Rhys’ calibre.
The album’s swansong, ‘Selfies in the Sunset’, again sees Rhys play with the light and the dark of the universe. A meditative, but darkly funny duet with actress and model Lily Cole, sees the duo centred in their – and our – impending doom. “Apocalyptic mushroom clouds/tower above us… This is the end/ Get your phone out to document” the duo scathe in a scrutiny of the 21st Century world but, much like ‘The Club’, they end on a conclusively positive culmination: “Wake me in the morning at the beginning of a new dawn”. It’s a brilliantly dark, twisted, yet brutally funny end to an album that offers up so many thoughts and feelings, both optimistic and pessimistic.
This could be Rhys’ most lavishly executed pop record, evoking some of Rhys’ heroes from the 60s and 70s with a flamboyant, whimsical edge. Certainly, too, the string-laden design behind the record, steeping the record in Americana throughout, helps this feel like one of his more assured and confident releases to date. Babelsberg is essentially a tour through the tempestuous, bumpy and difficult climate we’re all adapting to at the moment, and Gruff Rhys acts as the best tour guide you could have.