Review: Gruff Rhys – Sadness Sets Me Free

Artwork for Gruff Rhys' Sadness Sets Me Free album

In Gruff Rhys’ solo canon progress is nearly always by degree, a truth underlined again here.

The last time we encountered the much-loved Welsh singer Gruff Rhys he was somewhere up a 4,000-year-old Korean volcano on his previous album Seeking New Gods; a study in melancholic pop of the highest order, it was more gristle for uber patient lovers of the Super Furry Animals to chew on as their wait for new material went on.

Since then the rest of SFA have formed an outfit called Das Koolies and released their excellent debut DK.01, but Sadness Sets Me Free is a landmark of a different kind, representing the 25th album the quixotic vocalist has released in his 35-year career individually, collaboratively and as a member of various bands.

Phew. Despite bringing out new music at a frequency that would rattle even the most workaholic of musicians however, little in his solo canon has sounded either rushed or lacking in invention; progress is nearly always by degree, a truth underlined again here.

Such a long time doing anything allows headroom for idiosyncrasy and exercising perspective though, as is the case with one of the album’s sumptuous anchors Celestial Candyfloss, a song described glibly by the singer as ‘an attempted pocket symphony’ but as rich in metaphors (‘Shoot for celestial candyfloss/Licking it like there’s no danger’) as it is in strings and earthbound pathos.

By any stretch now a veteran, the Gruff Rhys has embraced, he says, working with serendipity, which may explain his comfort with laying down the bones of his latest career episode in just three days, assisted by his crack house band and on this occasion Kate Stables of This Is the Kit.

Some of the freewheeling reflections contained in it are as compassionate as anything gone before. On the country-soaked ballad I Tendered My Resignation, the subject is compelled to end a relationship due to feeling unworthy of affection, whilst the chamber pop of Bad Friend recalls a Welsh holiday on which, ‘it was raining, the beer was warm and the chips were wet’, as the mate of the title wrestles the guilt of both over and under commitment.

The mood is nearly always contemplative, almost philosophical; Far Of The Dollar musing, ‘How does the ocean speak…how does the firefly?’, over soporific ivories whilst on the breezy Silver Lining (Lead Balloons) those dealing with life’s outrageous fortune are advised for succour to, ‘Press release and whistle tunes/That keep you going through the pain’.

Those nodding off into little worlds of their own may however be rudely awakened by a little shock invective, even if it’s couched in the almost dream-like ambience of Cover Up The Cover Up, its gentle melodies cloaking revolutionary calls to, ‘Overthrow the monarchy/And private school system’, although regime change never sounded so placid.

It’s the titular opening track however which tells a story out of personal character but with the album’s most charm. Country inspired and owing a debt to Lambchop, the lead part is that of a man out of time who validates through drugs and hedonistic abandonment; seeing compassion in a saviour doubling up as a saint (‘From the showroom of your heart I see the courage of a kestrel/So come on, set me free from my vain and selfish ways’), this ageing Mitty thinks a would be, kind of battered, partial redemption is in reach.

Most things are just a number, especially time itself, to the many rodeos Gruff Rhys has been to, the next is almost always the best one.

Sadness Sets Me Free is a thoughtful rebuke to a thoughtless age, and whatever experience sets you free, it will make that sound better.

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