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Bill Ryder-Jones' extraordinarily beautiful fifth solo album finds warming light in the darkness

"Iechyd Da"

Release date: 12 January 2024
Bill Ryder Jones Iechyd Da cover
16 January 2024, 09:00 Written by Janne Oinonen

"There’s something great about life/but there’s something not quite right", Bill Ryder-Jones sighs at one point during Iechyd Da.

The duality and nagging doubt present in that line is an apt summary of the former Coral guitarist’s fifth solo album, which for all the considerable merits of its predecessors presents a major creative leap forward.

Translated from Welsh to English, Iechyd Da stands for ‘good health’. A wry choice perhaps, as these extraordinarily moving songs are rooted in the downturn Ryder-Jones’s mental health took during the COVID era’s enforced isolation. Track titles such as “This Can’t Go On” and “Nothing To Be Done” coupled with difficult themes (steadily escalating bad habits, disintegrating relationships) promise an unstintingly tough listen.

It’s an impression enforced by lyrical snapshots that feel too raw to be based on anything other than lived reality. One tune appears to chart the moment unwise self-medication turns into a compulsive need. Another finds Ryder-Jones half-muttering about a ‘’ghost…who pulls at my strings/moves my hand toward the sharper things’’. Instead of the relentless heaviness (literally and figuratively) of its predecessor, 2018’s Yawn (which lends its name to the West Kirby studio where this album was recorded), however, Iechyd Da ultimately turns back from the brink armed with wary optimism and hard-won hope. It’s one of those rare gems that turn very personal hardship into universally resonant anthems for the light at the end of the tunnel.

It helps that the music on Iechyd Da is disarmingly gorgeous. Drawing from the strongest aspects of all of his previous solo albums alongside (at a guess) the sweeping balladry of Richard Hawley, the homespun psychedelic Disney orchestrations of Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips, epic outliers of 80s indie (‘’I walked all night to the Killing Moon’’, goes one tune, nodding towards Echo and The Bunnymen) and the sumptuous sadness of Jimmy Webb and Mickey Newbury, Iechyd Da makes full use of the production and arrangement skills Ryder-Jones has been honing with production work (most notably on Michael Head’s much-acclaimed Dear Scott).

Strings, brass, a Gal Costa sample, liberally sprinkled children’s choir: in lesser hands, such an unabashed intent to dream big could easily collapse into a stifling, budget-price Brian Wilson sensory overload. Thanks in part to Ryder-Jones’s gentle, beautifully bruised vocals (giving every impression that he’s whispering some deeply held secret right in the listener’s ear), and charmingly ramshackle details (Ryder-Jones’s hummed guide for the richly layered arrangements remains faintly audible in places), Iechyd Da manages the feat of being simultaneously undeniably epic, full of music painted on the widest possible canvas, and humbly, almost uncomfortably intimate, similar in its emotional impact to a solitary singer-songwriter revealing their deepest fears and hopes alone in the spotlight.

It’s futile to pick highlights from an album that is so uniformly inspired that even the one far-out diversion from the heartfelt script (“…And The Sea…”, a woozy instrumental featuring Michael Head reciting from James Joyce’s Ulysses) works perfectly. That said, anyone failing to be moved by album closer “Thankfully for Anthony” should promptly check if their heart’s still intact. Propelled by the same battered majesty that fueled Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, the track’s weary yet hopeful slow-burn thud soars to truly spectacular levels of loveliness as Ryder-Jones hymns the rejuvenating, even redemptive potential of friendship and support networks: ‘’I know loss/but I chose love.’’ It’s a heartbreaking yet hopeful conclusion to a warm, wise and comforting album, the humanity and compassion of which feels in high demand amongst the bleak realities of Planet Earth in early 2024.

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