Jul 02, 2021
By Caleb Campbell
Initially, Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth may seem like an odd pairing for an album of swampy southern soul. On one hand, you have Gillespie, frontman of Primal Scream, and an elder statesman of indie rock, retro psych rock, and alternative dance music. On the other, you have Beth, known best for her abrasive post-punk with Savages and for her own esoteric solo experiments. Yet, what unites the pair is their tendency towards restless innovation. In that respect, though their new album Utopian Ashes may carve new territory for them, it should come as no surprise that the results are brilliant in their own right.
Gillespie and Beth both bring along their respective collaborators; Andrew Innes, Martin Duffy, and Darrin Mooney join from Primal Scream, along with Beth’s frequent collaborator and partner Johnny Hostile. Even with them in tow, however, Gillespie and Beth are the true stars of the show. Gillespie takes the lead vocals through much of the album, his raspy cracked howls implying untold stories of grief and conflict. But, the real surprise is Beth, who trades in her fearsome punk persona for a previously unseen level of tender melodicism. Though she does find the occasion to deploy her ice-cold spoken word talents on “Living a Lie,” the largest influences on the record are evergreen country pairings like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris or George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Together, Gillespie and Beth conjure a heady mix of southern soul, country, and blues, telling the story of a marriage in disarray. Both slide into character as one half of the crumbling relationship, spinning tales of family, infidelity, drugs, and loss. There are no easy answers, no fairytale endings, and plenty of guilt to go around in these vignettes.
The dramatic string-backed opener introduces the characters’ wounded hearts with some cutting opening lines —“Time slips away/Day after day/And I don’t even love you.” From there the story unfolds. “English Town” sees Gillespie longing for more from life, traversing a decaying English town over a Scott Walker blues waltz.
As the album wears on we descend deeper into our dual protagonists’ relationship, tracing the pair’s attempts to prop up the crumbling walls. “Remember We Were Lovers” sets aside the bitterness, instead tributing better days with a sweeping southern soul sound. “We’re stupid and ungrateful,” the pair confess. “We’ll never ever learn/We abuse this gift we’re given/Again and again and again and again…” The horns burst and crash in response, mirroring the lovers’ anguish in a fantastic soul-stirring climax. Meanwhile, your “Heart Will Always Be Broken” draws a measure of hope and resilience, only to be met with bitterness and pure sorrow with “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”
Ultimately, the record wears towards its inexorable end, the foregone conclusion from the beginning of the first song. With “You Can Trust Me Now” the pair insist on mutual trust as Gillespie promises to leave behind his vices. Meanwhile, the ghostly country balladry only sees the fractures between them grow.
Finally, the walls crumble down on “Living a Lie,” as all of the drugs, the fighting, and the infidelity come to a head. The pair finally recognize the inevitable—“We’re living a lie/Been living alone/Together alone/The things we do to each other/Are breaking our hearts.” Finally, the closer, “Sunk In Reverie,” offers a denouement to the record’s filmic drama. Set against swaying strings and a solitary mid-tempo acoustic guitar, Gillespie finds himself at a party, surrounded by “blood-sucking vampires” and deep in the fog of memory. He fondly recalls the lovers’ first meeting and ends the album surveying their love’s titular utopian ashes.
Though Gillespie and Beth both break from their established styles on Utopian Ashes, they strike on something truly special in the process—a bountiful collaborative relationship and a resulting record of powerful drama and sweeping instrumental beauty. The pairing is as gripping as it is vulnerable, bringing these characters to life in a way that feels real and authentic. Even if this is ultimately the only collaboration these two will share, their survey of familial pain and heartbreak is powerfully affecting and thoroughly human. (www.bobbyjehnny.com)
Author rating: 8.5/10
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