Thursday, February 1, 2024

Album Review: Gruff Rhys - Sadness Sets Me Free

Gruff Rhys
Sadness Sets Me Free
*** out of *****

Collectively, this will be the 25th album from the Welsh artist Gruff Rhys who has spanned the globe with his sounds, inspiration, and songwriting. His newest effort is titled Sadness Sets Me Free as the music and lyrics/vocals have a tug of war between optimism and pessimism; the title of the record certainly does the songs justice.

Rhys worked with his touring band – Osian Gwynedd (piano), Huw V Williams (double bass) and Kliph Scurlock (drums) hopped into the studio directly at the end of their March 2022 excursion, recording the basic tracks in La Frette Studios on the outskirts of Paris. The music laid down by the group (along with added string work and orchestration) is mostly upbeat, with head bopping sounds while Rhys lyrically contemplates large issues in his soft/gloomy/reserved vocal manner. This juxtaposition works well throughout the album as the dueling feelings push and pull at each other, never getting too high or low.

The buoyant sounding “Bad Friend” contemplates the idea that a bad friend is still a friend with Rhys’ breathy vocals, vibrant strings, and piano, while the organic sounding, 70’s pop influenced, “Celestial Candyfloss” pushes swelling strings and bright piano runs. Both the bossa nova adjacent “They Sold My Home To Build A Skyscraper” and the grandiose pop of “Peace Signs” take this combination to its zenith, pairing (almost) party music with dour lyrics of desperation and a vocal style from Rhys that sounds like he is singing while wanting to flee from the world.

The sanguine “Silver Lining (Lead Balloons)” uses drums and an excellent bass groove, resulting in a confident outing that devolves into “On The Far Side of the Dollar”, a more reserved, naturalistic, meditative tune complete with bird chirps. That sedative feeling seeps into the end of the album with both the pleasantly drifting “I Tendered My Resignation” and “Cover Up The Cover Up” which sedately calls for revolution with direct lyrics to “Reinvent the government/Overthrow the Monarchy'' as twinkling synths, soft strings and light drums float through the air.

The balancing act Rhys performs on Sadness Sets Me Free works well, except on the opening title track which starts with a gospel tinged, Americana musical foundation, before swelling with Broadway-like pomp. The music is very interesting but Rhys’ vocals are not up to the challenge of theatrical highs. Better is the bookend closing companion piece, “I’ll Keep Singing” which wraps up the album while connecting to the opener with swirling synths, horns and buzzy goodness.

Things can be both joyous and nerve wracking in the world, Gruff Rhys continually tries to balance those dichotomies throughout Sadness Sets Me Free.
Support the artist, buy the album, and peep some video below:

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