Bobby Gillespie & Jehnny Beth
Imagine The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee as a collection of rustic dramatic duets, and you have a pretty good sense of what Utopian Ashes sounds like. The first full-length collaboration between Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie and Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth, Utopian Ashes doesn’t have either project’s respective chaotic energy or righteous indignation, but it succeeds through its creators’ commitment to truth, even through an alternative reality.
Gillespie and Beth are cast as a couple whose relationship is dead in every sense of the word. You don’t need to pay attention too closely when you have song titles like “Remember We Were Lovers,” Your Heart Will Always Be Broken,” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Its lyrics are timeless enough that these could pass as covers of songs written 50-odd years ago. The arrangements, full of strings, piano, and at least one instance of harp, are also quite old-fashioned, and the vocals could be best described as “crooning.” Even the wild guitar solo that breaks into opener “Chase It Down” is an acid rock-style throwback.
Utopian Ashes is at its best when it eschews subtly from an instrumentation and performance standpoint. The duo has announced a run of dates in November, and as satisfying as the crescendos and tormented refrains of “Again and again” on “Remember We Were Lovers” are on the album, they stand to create collective goosebumps when heard live. It also helps that Gillespie and Beth are aided by three of his Primal Scream bandmates and John & Jehn cohort Johnny Hostile. Moments like the horn bombast of “Living a Lie” or the ruminating piano on “English Town” work because of their placement as much as they do their presentation.
Lyrically is where the album runs into some trouble. At best, they’re no-frills, dialogue to keep the plot moving while attention is on the stars at the center. But when they take a gamble, it results in wince-worthy lines like “Sometimes I think that love is a disease, like addiction” and worse still, “You crashed at every bridge, Hiroshima’d your senses in abattoirs of flesh” Both lines come from the one-two punch of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “You Can Trust Me Now” (with spoken-word interlude “Self-Crowned King of Nothingness” in between), and these tracks create a lull that feels worryingly permanent until “Living a Lie” and its powerful chorus comes along.
But that power persists through much of Utopian Ashes, and even if Gillespie and Beth seem more focused on the delivery then they do the words, it’s easy to get swept into the grandiosity of it all. They might be singing about breaking up, but hopefully, there’s more to come from their creative partnership.
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