Having traversed a myth-laced American Interior on his previous solo album, Gruff Rhys now ventures out to Babelsberg, a realm of unsettled atmospheres, future frontiers and selfies taken in blazing sunsets.
Though borrowing its name from a real place in Germany, Rhys’ Babelsberg has the parable of the biblical tower in the back of its mind. Foregoing a heavy moral to impart, the album’s ten songs observe but aren’t looking to pass judgement so much as entreat to keep your eyes open and stay positive. Rhys has an eye for detail and, as do his Super Furry Animals, a mind tuned to adventure. He is in his element when spotting human commonalities and splitting them open to see how they work.
The sophisticated opening sweep of “Frontier Man” sets the tone for the rest of the record that follows. A plush bed of strings, the beat ticking at an easy trot, Rhys diving into the deeper end of his vocal register - a spoonful of Glen Campbell here, dashes of Scott Walker and Harry Nilsson there. The playful protest song “Limited Edition Heart” (“And I’m keeping my eyes peeled/For military takeover at night/We’ll go into hiding/And keep the light shining”) has Bacharach poise, “Take That Call” strolls into its chorus with ‘70s singer-songwriter warmth. Through his solo work, Rhys has, similar to peer Gaz Coombes, gradually found new dimensions to his voice as an instrument. Dips into his smooth lower tone seem to have become a bit more frequent, and Babelsberg’s composure calls for even more.
Behind each song is an orchestral accompaniment composed by Stephen McNeff and provided by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. McNeff has keen instincts for when to dial it up and when to pull back, and never lays it on thick. Rhys’ progression as a solo artist has an arc not unlike that of SFA’s development from the 1990s to the 2000s, in terms of maturation and the increasing nods to the classics, the difference being the set of classics that are being nodded to. The lens of amusement and sympathy through which Rhys views the turning world around him brings new life to the lineage he draws and draws from.