“Eleanor Rigby” has a lot to answer for. When mere pop stars were given the go ahead to adorn their three chord tricks with strings, thus, supposedly, adding a veneer of sophistication to the simplest of art forms, nobody perhaps realised just how little Hope would be left in the box. Experimentalism is a good thing, of course, but it’s evil cousin, Pretentiousness, has never been far away. “Eleanor Rigby” broke down the doors of teenage middle class bedrooms everywhere, and informed kids being forced to learn the tuba by their parents that advanced musicianship had a place in the palace of groupies and fast cars and ransacked hotel rooms. Sophisticated and cool.
This was a largely British revolution. American pop had had Elvis, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison, and they had been produced by people who knew exactly what to do with a string section. And it’s the American masters Gruff Rhys is evoking on his new “orchestral” album, Babelsberg, rather than the oft-dodgy strings and brass in the British tradition of psychedelic pop where Rhys usually finds his feet planted.
Nowadays of course, strings on pop music are as common as anything else ushered in by technology. But the welcome of an orchestra suggests one thing: EVENT. And that should send chills down the spine of any self-respecting muso.
There have been recent successes – notably John Grant squeezing strings into dance music at the Royal Festival Hall a few years ago, and even The Wedding Present played a few gigs in Leeds with help from the BBC’s classical department, and it wasn’t half bad. But still, in most cases, give a kid a box of fireworks, and he’s likely to blow off their own hands. It takes a real craftsman to use tools for their real purpose (feel free to insert anecdotes of Scott Walker using sides of beef as percussion instruments here), and something else again for that craftsman to draw in the history of a tradition – the high points of a tradition, at that – and use these highpoints to his own subversive ends. Gruff Rhys recognises the history of duffers when it comes to orchestras taking directions from pop stars – his awareness, his avoidance of it, is in every note of Babelsberg.
Babelsberg is a rare thing, then; an album where the orchestration is not ladled on the top of some songs already written. The work of BBC National Orchestra of Wales is integral throughout, there is a unified sonic vision that wears its forebears on its sleeve. The album is about America, it’s about Trump and white supremacy and the death of the American dream. America is a subject Rhys has tackled before in his solo work, but never has he been driven to such visceral take-downs as you’ll find here. And he is throughout in top pop form, delivering his satricial bites with sugar sweet melodies and toe-tappers. This is an album that uses sarcasm like napalm.
And there is something to be said for the friction between Rhys’ two personas – melodic pop maestro and Americana explorer. There are deep flashes of “Wichita Lineman”, but also luscious moments that nod to Nelson Riddle and even Aaron Copeland. Yet Rhys’ songcraft is never far from that dozy-eyed acoustic vibe.
Opener “Frontier Man” is a perfect homage to Grand Ole Opry country and western. Rhys even pushes his vocal up into the red on the bridge, giving it that live feel of an era when equipment wasn’t quite up to the job. This is the penned-in outlaw music of Cash and Kristofferson, and had either of those artists recorded this in 1972 it wouldn’t have felt out of place in their repertoire. Tracks like “Oh Dear!” crackles with that kind of Donald “Duck” Dunn bass-work (provided here by Sweet Baboo’s Stephen Black); the brilliant “Limited Edition Heart” has the swagger of Beck at his most ten-gallon-hat; and “Take That Call” is one of the best pop singles of the year, bounding along somewhere between the Beach Boys and Randy Newman. Notably though, the best song on the album, “Architecture of Amnesia”, is decidedly British, and will have any fan of Robert Wyatt swooning.
It would be a mistake though to simply think of this as part of Rhys’ musical journey through life – he has political preoccupations here that have informed every inch of his musical choices. In here are big bold references to the American songbook, and he is turning them all back on the people who created them, almost spitting them in the faces of the oblivious American people. Babelsberg is not just a concept album, it’s a conceptual protest, a conceptual message to a nation still unwilling to admit it is a crumbling empire, a democratic experiment that is rotting from the inside out, a nation whose initial attachment to slavery means it never really was going to have a fighting chance of escaping its culture.
Babelsberg is a sweeping success in both concept and execution. His recent single about the NHS, “No Profit in Pain”, suggests Gruff Rhys has the bit between his teeth at the moment. But – and there’s always a but – the failed America project is a big target, and he rails against the privatisation of the NHS whether it is the devolved Welsh one or not, taking on universal healthcare as one big ideology rather than a complex reality that has different problems in Wales to those in England. Perhaps, given Rhys’ huge talent as a conceptual artist, a bit more intellectual focus could prove a very powerful thing. In times like these we need our great artists to stand up and make a noise.