John Lavin reviews Gruff Rhys’ latest album American Interior, commending it for its subversive sound.
‘For the record I’d be proud to come from anywhere on Earth (or beyond), and my hope in this particular… album has been to celebrate our glorious diversity, continued encounters and cultural exchanges as dwellers of the said planet.’ Gruff Rhys – sleeve notes to American Interior
The forward-thinking, all-embracing attitude expressed above, has been a central tenet of the Gruff Rhys worldview from the beginning. From the bilingual approach to pop stardom that resulted in the Super Furry Animal’s fourth album – the Welsh language Mwng – reaching the top ten and sparking debate in the House of Commons, to that same band’s psychedelic-techno-playing, flower-spouting tank setting up its store at every British music festival in 1996. Think of those druggy but heartfelt, metaphorical lines in the early single, ‘If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You’: ‘And if the insects fly all around you/ Do you reach and aim a hit/ Or do you lie around a bit?’ Rhys, as if it needs saying, is not one ‘to reach and aim a hit’, although his extraordinarily prolific output – of the kind that puts uber-prolific sometime collaborator, Damon Albarn to shame – also hardly suggests someone who does not do a lot of ‘lying around’ these days either. The fact is that Rhys has always been a playful subversive but perhaps a more serious one than his – often whimsical – media persona has tended to suggest.
Interested in multimedia since the Super Furry Animals released a simultaneous DVD version of their disappointing Rings Around The World album in 2002, American Interior, comes in just about as many different shapes and forms, as you would have thought, were possible. There is this album, and then there is a feature-length documentary, an app, and even a proper hardback book, published by Hamish Hamilton, no less.
But where Gruff’s debut feature-length documentary, Separado, came accompanied by a pretty much unlistenable (with the exception of the glorious, Silver Apples-esque ‘In a House With No Mirrors’) psychedelic metal album entitled The Terror of Cosmic Loneliness, (made with one of the documentaries subjects, Tony Del Gattora), this quasi-sequel has spawned a fully official studio record. The successor, in fact, to the Welsh Music Prize-winning Hotel Shampoo.
If that record felt like Gruff’s most complete record since leaving the Super Furry Animals, then American Interior goes one better, feeling as it does, like one of the most complete and accomplished records he has made to date. It is, for one thing, the first Rhys solo album that doesn’t sound like it would benefit from the natural chemistry provided by having the rest of the Super Furry Animals on board. For another, it is quite simply the most fully realised collection of songs Rhys has written in a long time. Perhaps since Mwng and certainly since the Super Furry’s underrated late career-high, Hey Venus.
That said, Rhys has been on something of a creative roll for a while now, having released a series of good-to-great albums either as himself or as one half of Neon Neon (the Tony de Gattora album being the obvious exception) since SFA went on indefinite hiatus in 2009.
But asides from the obvious dividends to be gained from continuous creativity, perhaps it is the framework provided by telling the life of Rhys’ ancestor, John Evans, that really makes this album reach the heights that it does because Rhys sounds as consistently focussed as he has done at any point in his career. As with Separado, Rhys has set out to research the life of an ancestor about whom very little is known about. In this case, it is the aforesaid John Evans:
an orphaned farm hand… [who] left Wales for Baltimore in 1972 and walked alone with $1.75 to his name into the wilderness of the Allegheny mountains… in search of a lost tribe of Welsh-speaking Native American, believed by some to be the descendants of Prince Madog…
If that sounds like the sort of typically whimsical subject matter that you might expect to find informing a Gruff Rhys concept album then, well, fair enough, but as I said before, there is a seriousness behind this record (and his oeuvre as a whole) that should not be disregarded. Rhys has always had a Welsh folk-inflected gift for melody that make his most beautiful songs like ‘Down a Different River’ and ‘Gwreiddiau Dwfn’ / ‘Mawrth Oer Ar y Blaned Neifion’ genuinely ache with sadness. In American Interior he translates this Welsh mountain loneliness to 17th Century mid-America and the results, perhaps most especially as the album draws to a close – and on ‘Walk into the Wilderness’ in particular – are stunning.
The album was largely recorded in Bright Eyes producer Mike Moggis’ studio in Omaha, Nebraska and the record has an accordingly alt-America feel to it, that in terms of sound – if most certainly not lyrically – recalls Conor Oberst’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (‘100 Unread Messages’ being the most obvious case). But it is also a record the recalls the classic early Super Furry Animals of Fuzzy Logic and Radiator. There surely haven’t been this many classic guitar sounds on a Gruff-led album since 1997. Is the solo on the title track his most straightforward and best, in fact, since ‘Hometown Unicorn’ in 1996? Do the beautific pedal steel-scapes on ‘Tiger’s Tale’ consciously echo Radiator‘s classic ‘Mountain People’?
There are also hosts of great pop songs here, like the Love-esque ‘The Whether (Or Not)’ and the Neon Neon-like ‘Lost Tribes’, all of which goes to make this album, which is concerned at heart with forgotten languages, races and customs, one of Rhys’ most commercially accessible records to date. A subversive achievement indeed.