Gruff Rhys Breaks Down Language Barriers on Pang!
You don't need to know a lick of Welsh to enjoy the Super Furry Animals' newest solo recordMusic Reviews Gruff Rhys
It’s said that a good movie can be understood by any audience in any country, language barriers be damned. Not all of us are linguists, but the camera speaks a universal dialect; a story told through its lens is a story anyone can grasp. The same can be said of music, too, though music and cinema are wildly different mediums. A song is comprised of lyrics as well as instrumentation, and the instruments, frankly, are arguably more important for conveying tone than the lyrics themselves.
Case in point: Pang!, the new album from Gruff Rhys, frontman of the Welsh rock group Super Furry Animals. The band has held in stasis since about 2009 (reuniting in 2015, but not releasing any new music since), but Rhys has kept himself busy with solo projects, including last year’s Babelsberg. What separates Babelsberg from Pang! is a layer of Welshness, meaning quite simply that Pang!, unlike the English-language Babelsberg, is sung entirely in Welsh, save for a few Zulu verses.
Ask your friends if they know any Welsh, and they might stare blankly at you or assume you’re talking about a certain jelly manufacturer. Play them an album with Welsh lyrics and you’re liable to blow their minds. Pang!, amazingly, doesn’t require familiarity with the land of Cymru, or its mother tongue. In fact, all anyone needs to enjoy it is a set of ears.
Rhys has composed an album straddling language’s hurdles with rhythm, melody, and sensation. Take “Ara Deg (Ddaw’r Awen),” which, for the curious, roughly translates to “Slowly (Comes Poetic Inspiration)”; the track bounces, light on its feet, pausing only as Rhys gently intones on the verses. There’s a sheer joy in his voice that needs no interpreter to be felt or understood. It flows through the upbeat tempo, a sly contrast to the idea that artistic inspiration doesn’t necessarily come quickly: The track’s unbridled vim defies the lag of the songwriting process.
Leap ahead a couple of tracks to “Niwl O Anwiredd,” or “Fog of Fabrication” in English, and you’ll find Pang! shifting gears to a cooler pace, somber and deliberate, punctuated by doleful trumpets and finger percussion on the chorus. Rhys’ subject matter here is up for grabs; we do live in a time of too much information, and by consequence too much misinformation. Maybe he’s writing about how easily we can lose ourselves in the effluvium of the social media age. Maybe he’s just singing about getting lost in truly dismal weather. “Niwl O Anwiredd” conveys multitudes of possibilities through spirit alone, and so maybe knowing the exact substance of the song is irrelevant. What matters is what it makes you feel.
And then there are tracks like Pang!’s closer, “Anedd i’m Danedd,” (“A House For My Teeth”), that indulge wacky nonsense. Here, the music is a kind of deception: As with “Niwl O Anwiredd,” Rhys paces “Anedd i’m Danedd” slowly, but layers that pace with an utterly elated arrangement of trumpets and lilting vocals. To the ear, blissfully ignorant of what the title means, the song reads as referential to mariachi music. It’s celebratory. Having all of one’s teeth in one’s mouth is, perhaps, a good enough reason to celebrate as any, but the idiosyncratic choice to end Pang! with what might as well be a Weird Al song is very in line with Rhys’ aesthetic.
But what makes Pang! work is its appreciation for music as common ground. Anyone can speak music, however absurd or empyrean the music might be. Admittedly, you’ll get more out of the album if you have a minor grasp on Welsh, the same way you’ll get more from certain arcs in Chris Onstad’s Achewood if you know a bit about Wales and Welsh culture. Any little bit helps. But Rhys is such a good songwriter that an audience hailing from anywhere on the globe can tune into Pang!’s curious frequencies and find their own meaning in his sound.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.