In the press release for Sadness Sets Me Free, Welsh psych-pop veteran Gruff Rhys describes his current artistic process as “leaving things open to chance encounters and chance geography.” Now, for those readers who don’t know, which I’m assuming will be the majority; this mindset is a distinctly Welsh one. For better and sometimes for worse, the independent music scene here in Wales is defined by its easygoing affability and casual nature. Bands and labels take time over releases, the content of which are often quirky, thoughtful and gently psychedelic.
The worldview and corresponding aesthetic is epitomized by Rhys and his former band Super Furry Animals. They’re kind of the ground zero of indie music in Wales; everything that followed owes them varying degrees of debt. Rhys is one of our definitive cult musicians, even if his relaxed demeanor belies any rock star pretensions. I actually often see him in my local coffee shop here in Cardiff and based on that along with many local stories I can confidently say he’s an extraordinarily humble and down-to-earth musician.
In typically chill fashion, Rhys says he’s currently “around 25 albums in.” Not counting his 2023 soundtrack The Almond & The Seahorse, Sadness Sets Me Free is his first solo album since 2021’s Seeking New Gods. His latest finds Rhys in spirited form. These ten piano-led tracks make for an ornate collection, rife with strings, percussion and layers of vocals. It’s as colorful as ever, full of Rhys’ signature absurd titles (“Celestial Candyfloss,” “They Sold My Home To Build A Skyscraper”) along with gentle pangs of emotion (“Bad Friend” is especially bittersweet).
The best tracks are the five or six whose tempo moves at a considerable clip. The aforementioned “Bad Friend” is a bouncy delight, “Silver Linings (Lead Balloons)” is a danceable baroque pop banger, while “They Sold My Home To Build A Skyscraper” is a gorgeous samba track that’s as warm and seductive as an evening at a cocktail bar on the West Walian coast (that’s not at all the vibe of that beautiful but remote coastline, but you get the image). Rhys’ effortlessly lovely voice holds it all together, particularly when he exercises his higher vocal range, as evidenced on the lush album highlight “Celestial Candyfloss.”
This is a gorgeous record and another casual triumph by a low-key genius who seems perpetually surprised that he’s as brilliant as he is. Also; visit Wales, it rules.
Label: Rough Trade
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