When last we heard from Gruff Rhys, in 2016, the Welsh singer and Super Furry Animals frontman was gently encouraging his fellow Britons to vote against Brexit with the song “I Love EU.” That didn’t turn out so well, but Rhys was working on some other music, too: he recorded the 10 tracks on his new solo album, Babelsberg, around the same time, and then shelved them for 18 months until the composer Stephen McNeff could write scores and record them with the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
The result is a rich, nuanced pop album that feels like something French from the late ’60s. There are moments of madcap yé-yé guitar, some rumbly talk-singing, a sardonic duet and a blend of sincerity and deadpan wit, amplified by strings, brass and woodwinds that fill in the outlines of the songs with texture and color. For all the vintage-style musical forms, Rhys’ lyrics are startlingly up-to-date. Though he wrote these songs more than two years ago, he might as well be describing current events when he sings obliquely, and with grave faux-chivalry, about crossing borders on “Frontier Man,” or offers an arch take on the effects of the gig economy on “Oh Dear!” as busy string parts swirl around taut guitars.
Those songs, like most of Babelsberg, amount to cultural commentary, in the sense that Rhys is literally offering observations about what he sees happening around him. He’s never preachy about it, though some tunes are more barbed than others: through soulful vocals and swelling strings on “Architecture of Amnesia,” for example, Rhys takes aim at how the perpetual news cycle foments partisan hysteria. More often, he prefers to deal in satire and subversive metaphors. “It’s just those drones in the country / Buzz so differently to those in the city,” he sighs on the subdued “Drones in the City,” as if the relative merits make much difference when they’re circling overhead. “Selfies in the Sunset,” a twinkling piano duet with the model and actress Lily Cole, spoofs the impulse to document every element of our lives on social media, an addictive tic that Rhys imagines would continue even during a nuclear holocaust. He sounds indignant on “The Club,” his narrator bemoaning having been kicked out of an establishment he founded, while frothy strings bubble up around him. “Nobody believes that this institution would ever detach from its sure foundation,” he sings, and suddenly it could be a song about fragile geopolitical alliances. Or maybe it’s not—the track is so catchy and masterfully arranged that it doesn’t really matter.
The beauty of the orchestrations keeps Babelsberg from feeling cynical or strident—it’s hard to stay angry through the lush strings that swirl through “Limited Edition Heart,” or the piping woodwinds and vigorous string charts paired with robust electric guitar on “Take That Call.” It also helps that Rhys tends more toward charmed bemusement than recrimination. He even sounds quietly hopeful on “Negative Vibes” when he evokes solidarity and a spirit of conciliation in service of conquering, well, negative vibes. There are plenty of days lately when that concept seems hopelessly naive, but Rhys here offers an answer to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel: instead of letting ourselves be scattered and divided by language—or in this case, words and ideologies—we’d all be better off working together in pursuit of a common good. That seems highly unlikely, of course, given what we’re up against, but we’ll always have Babelsberg, and that’s no small consolation.