Where – or what – is Babelsberg?
There’s a version that exists in the real world. It sits an hour or so drive to the south of Berlin and is famous as the place where Stalin, Truman and Churchill met for the Allied Forces’ Potsdam Conference that effectively signalled the end of the Second World War. Home to the oldest film studio in the world, it’s a place that’s unromantically referred to as ‘Hollywood without the glamour’.
The Babelsberg of the mind is more a fever dream, a dystopian alternate reality (perfectly captured by Russian artist Uno Moralez). At the heart is a tower – a teetering symbol of opulence, bad taste and misguided aspiration. Topped by a series of destiny lofts that house patriarchy HQ, this is Ballard’s High Rise brought to life in the brand new, poorly constructed Trump Tower Moscow. Here, Jesus Christ walks a pet dinosaur on a lead and silent drones circle like birds of prey. The view from the top is very much of the people at the bottom. This Babelsberg might just be the perfect allegory for our hopelessly off-course world.
Babelsberg is also the title of Gruff Rhys’ fifth album. His version exists somewhere between the other two. Having glimpsed the name of the real place from the window of a moving tour van cruising across Europe endless, the idea of the place had been stuck in the back of Gruff’s head for years - a dormant thought waiting for the right time.
“I’d made a note of the name after driving past a sign when I was on tour in 2014,” says Gruff. “Cut to a few years later and the studio where I recorded the album was being knocked down just a week after I finished to make way for a ‘luxury’ apartment development. I was looking for a name that evoked the Tower of Babel - people building towers to reach an idea of heaven (but maybe creating a kind of hell - I’m an atheist by the way!) In any case I had written Babelsberg down and when I listened to the songs together, it finally made sense why I’d done that.”
Gruff’s Babelsberg is a ten song gazetteer of modern times. Each song is set to timeless, indelible melodies, and, amazingly for a record that lyrically pulls a very sharp focus on the times we’re living in, it was recorded in a feverish three-day session two and a bit years ago.
“I initially wanted to make a document of the songs I’d done for Candylion show (2015’s eye-popping immersive musical theatre show produced in conjunction with National Theatre Wales). I got offered some dates from Ali (Chant, producer of 2014’s American Interior) before his studio was demolished. I quickly found out who was in town, rounded them up and drove them in van where we recorded the whole thing in three days – mostly new songs and not the Candylion ones. I didn’t end up playing anything to anyone for a year.”
The three men Gruff herded into the back of the van were drummer and Super Furry Animals archivist Kliph Scurlock (ex-Flaming Lips drummer) and multi-instrumentalists Stephen Black (Sweet Baboo) and Osian Gwynedd (“They’re amazing musicians, so it was just a matter of capturing them.”); the ten songs they worked on were then sat on for twelve months during which time Gruff wrote and recorded possibly the only positive argument for remaining in Europe (the beautifully realised one-off paean to unity I Love E.U.), released the overdue soundtrack to 2014’s Dylan Thomas biopic, Set Fire To The Stars and made a fascinating short film about a failed Communist utopia while on tour of Siberia (The History of Nails). And then there was the opera...
“I was working on an opera about a post apocalyptic Wales with Stephen McNeff - a composer from Swansea. His scores were incredible so I asked him to write orchestral arrangements for the songs I’d recorded with Ali. Stephen’s always madly busy but I knew it would be worth the wait to get it get it right. We eventually got it done after 18 months. Musically, I know I’ve had more radical ideas in the past but with these songs… sometimes you just have to accept them the way they are and they way they want to be arranged. The idea of utilizing an orchestra seemed to chime with the fact that we’re living in this weird fake opulent world with empty luxury flats towering over city centres and that veneer is there to disguise the cancer inside.”
The lyrics on Babelsberg take in subjects such as the smoke and mirrors of division at the heart of our major cities, the 21st century’s new forms of state sponsored murder, the numbing effect helplessness of the 24 hour news cycle and the rise and rise of the delusional male ego.
“The lyrics are all part of the same age,” he says, “The lyrics are all part of the same age... they were recorded before this new horror reality we find ourselves in now but it was just a simple wait for reality to catch up with the existing rhetoric. I just felt they were a coherent set of songs that looked at the world from a similar stand point. It felt like they needed to be on an album together - maybe there was always an inevitability about the themes on the record.”
To counterbalance Babelsberg’s lyrical themes, each of these ten tales of the fear-and-now is set against gorgeous, honeyed sound. Over a rolling country song worthy of Jimmy Webb, album opener Frontier Man offers the perfect example of this juxtaposition.
“I suppose Frontier Man is about the pitfalls of whimsical behaviour and the cult of personality. Someone like Trump - who was on the ascendant when I wrote it - would have been on my mind. I’ve made a few records about male fantasists in the past, people like John DeLorean (Neon Neon’s 2008 album Stainless Style), John Evans (American Interior). Strong yet often deluded characters thinking in completely irrational ways and making fantastical plans, often to the detriment of the people around them. Maybe there’s something similar in the life of a musician or artist – it’s not necessarily the most rational way of living your life, but hopefully the work seeks to inspire or at least divert others somehow. Pop culture and politics are reliant on personality cults. But when political whims are acted out, it’s a far more dangerous prospect as we’re seeing now.”
Elsewhere, the idea of musicians as foot soldiers of extreme capitalism warps into Adam Curtis’ theory of empathic meltdown on Oh Dear (“Society has been persuaded that living like a musician is the way to be; really it’s back to a kind of un-unionized 19th century way of living. It’s not an easy way to get by,”) and inevitable melding of the 21st century’s most prevalent form of documentation and the on coming End Times in Selfies in the Sunset (a duet with Lily Cole).
“I wrote the song when I was in Russia because I kept seeing people taking photos in front of quite apocalyptic scenes. By chance, I ended up at a lecture by a British anthropologist called Daniel Miller. He gave examples of different selfie behaviours throughout history. Most selfies aren’t people trying to look better than they are; it’s a warts and all way of communicating. I came out of it feeling more positive about the world anyway. I’d been introduced to Lily as she was part of the weird artistic coalition campaigning against Brexit. I knew she was a singer so I ended up inviting her to duet on this song because she’s grown up being photographed her entire adult life.”
One of the most affecting pieces on Babelsberg is Negative Vibes. The only song on the album from the Candylion show, it takes a modern day problem – the increasingly confrontational polarization of views – and proffers a straightforward solution.
“It’s a song about relationships coming to an end and that being ok; recognising that it’s not really that important in the scheme of all the things going on all around the world. Everyone could be better off if they just treated things – and other people - respectfully and got on with their own lives.”
An agnostic’s parable borrowed from a DayGlo musical and set to sail on the choppy waters of modern life, it’s something close to the beating heart of Babelsberg – a flawless album that documents our troubled and troubling times with humour, grace and always addictive melody. In a career that’s spanned three decades, two languages, multiple bands, offshoots, collaborations and one boundless imagination, it’s arguably Gruff’s finest body of songs to date.
A towering achievement, indeed.