Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth’s friendship was born from a deep love of music, a profound respect for one another’s art, and a sly, subversive sense of humour. Clash spoke to both artists about this new collaborative album earlier in the year, and the two spent the entirety of the conversation swapping little known reference points and generally taking the piss.
Initially recorded during a whirlwind five days in Paris, ‘Utopian Ashes’ was intended as a no-pressure situation, a means of making music for the sake of making music. Bobby Gillespie wanted to lean on his country, soul, and blues influences, those “cracked ballads” that pepper Primal Scream records – think ‘Damaged’ from ‘Screamdelica’, or the early ‘Give Out But Don’t Give In’ demos.
The results are sparkling. Bold and direct, the language used on ‘Utopian Ashes’ continually searches for connection, while the music moves from the street symphonies of David Axelrod through to stark bar-room soliloquys, driven forwards by two stellar vocalists utilising every facet of their character.
Opener ‘Chase It Down’ recalls the urgency of Curtis Mayfield’s early 70s work, with Bobby crying: “Love while you can / Every woman, every man…” This carpe diem plea for peace evolves into the curious waltz-time ‘English Town’, its haunted feel recalling the character studies of Tom Waits.
‘Remember When We Were Lovers’ finds Bobby and Jehnny’s vocals intimately wrapped around one another, like fingers during a slow dance. ‘Your Heart Will Always Be Broken’ displays the album’s Americana leanings, a kind of sawdust flavoured lament to lost love, and lingering trauma. There’s a halo of beauty, too, as if experience somehow imbues us all with a quiet sense of grace; two grievous angels on their ascent to heaven, with Jehnny Beth channelling her inner Emmylou.
‘Stones Of Silence’ is pure Memphis, from its stalwart strut through to the electric piano; ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ meanwhile is Bobby Gillespie at his most affecting, lyrics that discuss addiction, love, and “the pain of living…”
‘You Can Trust Me Now’ opens with a pensive spoken word interlude that cuts right to the bone, before moving into a whispered country incantation, framed by bourbon and regret. ‘Living A Lie’ searches for light amid the darkness, before brisk finale ‘Sunk In Reverie’ revels in a curiously emotive sense of simplicity.
A project born from chance conversation, kicked off without any real end point in sight, ‘Utopian Ashes’ feels remarkably assured. Placing Jehnny Beth’s vocals in a completely different context than her work as a solo artist or with Savages, the songwriting finds that balance between light and shade, pain and joy. Aiming to pin down essential emotions in a personal way, ‘Utopian Ashes’ succeeds beyond their imaginations – a crisp, entrancing song cycle, it’s unaffected feel helps it linger long in the memory.
Words: Robin Murray
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