Qobuz new release review (July 2021)
What do you get when the man behind Primal Scream’s “Kill All Hippies” and the woman responsible for the careening wail of brutal Savages tracks like “No Face” make a record together? A genteel, sophisticated, and emotionally resonant album about the devastation of a broken romance, of course. While a soft rock album may not be the first thing one would expect from Bobby GIllespie and Jehnny Beth, it’s actually quite easy to find a throughline to this material from both the classic-rock slow jams in Primal Scream’s catalog and the balladry found on Jehnny Beth’s 2016 solo release. Still, when one discovers the Utopian Ashes aren’t that of a civilization destroyed by consumerism and conservatism, but instead of a once-blissful relationship now on its last legs, it is something of a pleasant surprise. With a band lineup that’s basically Primal Scream plus Jehnny Beth and her longtime collaborator Johnny Hostile, Utopian Ashes feels both connected to and entirely apart from any of their previous output, with strings and brass and lush guitar work providing the construction materials for songs that are as moody as they are heartfelt.
The first verse on the album has the line “I don’t even love you anymore,” and the refrain repeats throughout the song; amazingly, the ache and despondency devolves even further from there, with lyrics that are conceptually strong and character-driven but not confessional. Both artists paint a picture of this dissolute relationship from a unique perspective — the man’s is self-pitying, entitled, and woeful, while the woman’s is that of long-suffering optimism. Politics are largely avoided here; “English Town” uses small-minded provincialism as a stand-in for the doldrums of late-stage relationships, and that’s about it. Instead, most of the lyrics are straightforward depictions of betrayal, sadness, and thwarted redemption. Gillespie takes the lead on almost all of the songs, but when Jehnny Beth steps up, it’s with a surprising plaintiveness that’s deftly complementary to the mid tempo achiness that defines the album, most notably on the out-and-out mopey “Your Heart Will Always Be Broken.” The album peaks with the country-tinged back-and-forth duet of “You Can Trust Me Now” and the sweeping, melodramatic “Living a Lie,” a one-two punch that sounds like everything is gonna be alright between our distraught couple, only to reveal that, no, it’s still a disaster. As it closes with the louche desperation of “Sunk In Reverie,” the inherent nihilism of our couple’s romance becomes unmistakable, and it’s clear that this is a tale that could only have been told by these two artists. © Jason Ferguson/Qobuz