Sung in Welsh, produced by South African artist Muzi, Rhys’s latest is a chamber folk-rock minor masterpiece
After last year’s expansive, magnificent Babelsberg, Gruff Rhys has pared things back, although not by much. Where Babelsburg went the full orchestra, Pang! confines itself to the chamber, its songs not draped in instrumentation, but coloured with brass and woodwind where necessary, to supplement the pastoral acoustic mood of the album. There is, though, another form of expansiveness: for all its grounding in very British folk-rock styles, Pang! is a global record – there’s an explicit influence from South Africa (it was produced by the South African electronica artist Muzi) with some lyrics sung in Zulu, and in some of the instrumental detailing – the jittering electronic bells of Ara Deg, the interplay of guitar and percussion on Bae Bae Bae.
Overshadowing all of this, though, is the fact that aside from the brief snatch of Zulu, Pang! is sung entirely in Welsh. In some ways that’s helpful: your love of Rhys’ lyrics depends, as ever, on your enjoyment of words that are allusive and opaque, rather than direct. The English translations suggest Rhys is again worrying away at the state of the world in his own idiosyncratic way – the title and the title track express complete doubt about, well, more or less everything; Eli Haul is preoccupied with the effects of the sun (“Remember to wear a cap and spectacles on your travels”; Niwl O Anwiredd translates as Fog of Lies, which is self-explanatory. Even the more lyrically intimate Ôl Bys/Nodau Clust (Fingerprint/Earmarks) is wreathed in distrust: “Holy is your word / Holier is your password.” But the lyrics being incomprehensible to those without the gift of Welsh allows the less linguistically gifted to focus instead on the melodies.
There’s a delicious circularity to Pang! and Bae Bae Bae, both springtime streams of songs that seem to speak to centuries of music (don’t come to this album expecting any electric guitar fireworks; it’s all acoustic and measured). Only on Ôl Bys/Nodau Clust is there any hint of insistence, and that comes from a juddering rhythm rather than fierceness in any other element – in fact, the harmonised chorus is almost churchy in its construction. And so Gruff Rhys offers another minor masterpiece, destined to be all but ignored by those not devoted to his cult. More’s the pity.