Jack Boyce reviews Seeking New Gods, the latest solo album from Gruff Rhys tracking a conceptual exploration of the mystical Mount Paektu to wider ponderings on life and existence.
It’s a weird yet special space for an artist to occupy which allows them to constantly look for their next niche without alienating those that follow them. That’s exactly where Gruff Rhys currently finds himself on his seventh solo studio album, Seeking New Gods. The leader of Wales’ finest Britpop-leaning band Super Furry Animals — a group who consistently tiptoed the line between commercially accessible yet always imaginative records — Rhys’ own work is never short of fascinating itself. Whether it’s the multi-media concept project of 2014’s American Interior, or the Welsh language folk-pop via South African stylings of 2019’s Pang!, and many other unique projects that are primed to make great conversational starters in the pub. “Have you heard what Gruff Rhys has done this time?”
As idiosyncratic as ever, Seeking New Gods sees Rhys avert his eyes east, using the mystical Mount Paektu volcano situated on the North Korea-China border as a springboard for an otherworldly collection that hops between grandiose baroque pop and intimate psych-folk strums with a rare knack for earwigging melodies. The concept is not a strict one: while Rhys lovingly sprinkles in lyrics using Paektu’s geographical attributes, they’re used as more of a foundational stepping stone towards grander themes around life and death.
It’s not a huge leap from where Rhys has been aiming on past records, and previous listeners should be able to submerge themselves in Seeking New Gods with relative ease, but it’s clear intent from an artist who — even after 30+ years of music under his belt — is still continuing to tweak his formula of interesting, catchy pop songs that is near-perfected.
Throughout, Rhys’ voice has a world-worn allure to it without sacrificing the sweetness in its foundation that has carried him through his discography, a wide-eyedness without sounding naïve. It’s one of a man who is eager to welcome the listener in with an array of infectious choruses and a horizon-gazing outlook.
While technically classified as a solo record, Seeking New Gods pulls together some of the most prominent Welsh musicians working right now, a statement of both Rhys’ stature within the Welsh music community and his ability to congregate and bounce ideas off of his peers. Mirain Hâf Roberts and Lisa Jên (9Bach) lend vocals across the record, elevating Rhys’ level-headed tones to a grander plane on certain tracks, and adding extra splashes of warmth on others. Instrumentally, it’s a who’s who of Welsh musicianship, with contributions from drummer Kliph Scurlock (The Flaming Lips, Deerhoof, Black Mountain), pianist Osian Gwynedd (Catatonia, Miles Kane) and bassist Stephen Black (Sweet Baboo, Group Listening). Also smattered sporadically throughout are evocative saxophones courtesy of Gavin Fitzjohn, a session musician known for his works on albums by Paolo Nutini, Manic Street Preachers and many, many more, and recently his own 299 project.
Led by Rhys himself on production, it’s pretty clear that the high standards of the leading man are filtered through to his supporting cast. The execution is incredible throughout — production is polished but doesn’t shy away from a little bit of scuzziness on parts, ideal for keeping the potential sterilisation of the record’s sound at arm’s length. This allows the rest of the band to shine; each instrumental part lends itself well to a cohesive group effort, but multiple listens really allow each member to shine in their respective parts, with Osian Gwynedd more often than not carrying tracks forward with gorgeous, head bobbing piano shuffles.
While it’s unlikely that Seeking New Gods will end up being on the more eccentric side of Gruff Rhys’ catalogue, it should be looked at as one of his finest. It’s a testament to the man himself that even after hitting fifty years of age, he sounds as sprightly as ever and is willing to put together a collection of songs that are some of his most radio-friendly & accessible to date. Seeking New Gods will go down as another high benchmark in Rhys’ career that only continues to grow riper with art-pop gems.
Seeking New Gods by Gruff Rhys is available to stream now on Spotify.
Jack Boyce is a Welsh freelance music writer currently based in London.