Review: Super Furry Animals – Phantom Power (20th anniversary reissue)

Artwork for Super Furry Animals' 20th anniversary reissue of Phantom Power

Super Furry Animals revisit their 2003 record.

Over the years, the Super Furry Animals have become known for a lot of things – rave tanks, giant inflatable bears, hanging out with Colombian guerillas – but prescience was not one of them.

And then along came The Piccolo Snare, a track from their sixth album Phantom Power. The song climaxed with singer Gruff Rhys intoning grimly, ‘As brother fights brother/Wrapped up in tarnished flags/Banners and body bags’.

What that meant at the time versus what it could mean twenty years later are probably two very different things, but as a gloomy metaphor it still works in the present for an America reaching boiling point.

It helped though that the song was an understated, lilting ballad that played out with more than a little bliss; after all who, you reckoned, should worry about a little trouble in the world far, far away?

Well, as it turns out, the quintet from Bethesda were bothered about more than just some stupid constitutional amendment, Bleed Forever tackling an ecological crisis still then in the making with the opening line: ‘Cloud upon cloud cries poison rain.’

But let’s regroup here. This angst had been preceded by Golden Retriever, a single so hummable and perfect that it should’ve been taught in schools, and an opening track called Hello Sunshine upon whose countryfied shoulders the weight of our future happiness seemed to rest.

Phantom Power teetered in this balancing act, in the laps of both the ridiculous (lyrics like, ‘She came in smelling of cabbages’, Yeti costumes) and the sublime (Liberty Belle’s viewing of global politics from nature’s perspective). It was equally a conscious downgrading of its grandiose (for Super Furry Animals) predecessor Rings Around The World, whilst ambitiously splicing techno, alt. Nashville and retro West Coast pop, more than once almost simultaneously.

These risks had come from taking other risks, as the group had decided to self-produce and also to an extent self-record with a backstop of wheeling extra music brains in only when deemed necessary. Such freedom was the catalyst for an experimental record which was happy to hold the listener’s hand, a trip with a guide happy to coax you through its Swiss Army knife of musical ideas.

In a world where it feels like albums are reissued because the wind has changed, Super Furry Animals if measured by the handling of their back catalogue have always proven to be one of the good guys. In the latest instalment, this happily remains true.

As well as the original material being remastered, the expansion pack offers something for fans who might judge themselves as anywhere between casual to going through people’s bins.

The extra stuff comes in two parts, the first being a deceptively short looking list of offcuts, B-sides and live work, and whilst you’ll probably need to google whether Goldie Lookin’ Chain (as featured on Motherfokker) are still going, the 20-minute, techno interluded sprawl of The Man Don’t Give A Fuck is almost worth the admission price alone.

Part tri is/are 25 demo takes, which vary in substance from almost fully formed to just kind of dicking about in the studio; it’s wrong to pick a favourite, but the ragged county heft of Sex, War And Robots’ alternative version should have Kurt Wagner eating his heart out.

20 years on, Phantom Power represents as much of career peak as some of it was prophesy; Super Furry Animals would again be as good on their subsequent three albums (to-date) but never in quite such a coherent, sympathetic and pleasing way.

Kings of contrarianism, with it they’d made a great record – and as hindsight have taught us were right about everything, all along.

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