GILLESPIE,BOBBY & JEHNNY BETH - UTOPIAN ASHES
Utopian Ashes is an album, to borrow from William Blake, of songs of experience. Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth's collection of duets is not a break-up record, but it does tell the story of a married couple facing up to love breaking down, the impossibility of real communication and other unavoidable outcomes of a full life. It is not a Primal Scream album, although it features Primal Scream's Andrew Innes on guitar, Martin Duffy on piano and Darrin Mooney on drums, with Jehnny Beth's musical partner Johnny Hostile on bass. And it draws on the tradition of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris's Grievous Angel, George Jones and Tammy Wynette's We Go Together and other country soul classics to deal, in a straight-talking fashion, with the heavy realities of love, loss, disconnection and ultimately redemption. As Gillespie says: “Emotional inarticulacy is at the crux of it.”
“You never want to hold me or kiss me anymore,” sings Gillespie on Remember We Were Lovers, a desperately sad piano ballad about the dying of love's flame. “You stay out late, never come home for days,” whispers Beth on Living A Lie, on which a cascading harp sets the tone for a tale of mistrust and miscommunication. “I put myself in some dangerous situations, suffered black dog years of degradation,” says Gillespie in Self Crowned King Of Nothingness, a spoken-word introduction to the elegant, orchestrated You Can Trust Me Now. This is a deep album about adult themes, beautifully arranged, presented without artifice.
“You Can Trust Me Now is at the heart of the album for me,” says Beth. “It is an example of how a song can open up a part of yourself you may not have otherwise accepted. These are healing songs, in a way. They may be broken hearted, but the album is like a long hug from an old friend.”
Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth first met in 2015, when both were guests at Suicide: A Punk Mass at the Barbican. “Suicide's management asked me to sing Dream Baby Dream with Bobby — half an hour before going on stage,” remembers Beth, the singer with Savages at the time. “The gig was chaos. The audience were standing on chairs, shouting… you couldn't even tell if the music was playing or not. Alan Vega was hardly singing, and at one point a weird child was on stage who turned out to be Alan Vega's son. We went on amid all this madness and in a second Bobby was on the floor, doing rock star moves. It was my lesson in rock'n'roll.”
Then in September 2016 Beth joined Primal Scream on stage for a duet of the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood classic Some Velvet Morning at Massive Attack's outdoor concert at Bristol Downs. A connection cemented, Primal Scream duly headed out to Paris the following year for a five-day session with Beth and her musical partner Johnny Hostile.
“Jenny had this book of lyrics, which I used as a starting point for melodies, and what we came up with initially was mostly electronic,” says Gillespie. “But when we came back here I wasn't feeling the electronic thing so I picked up my acoustic guitar, put chords to the melodies, and added lyrics about two people with a lot to lose, chiefly because there are children involved. The album began as an electronic soundscape. As Innes and I worked on it over that summer of 2017, it became a rock record.”
“When you work with someone, you want to understand their frame of mind. I realised that a lot of the album was about Bobby working out his past, who he was then, who he is now,” says Beth. “There is a lot in there about guilt, trying to be a better person. He showed me that you must always go forward, like a train that never stops.”
This led to songs like Chase It Down, which began as a mordant, Neil Young-like acoustic dirge about a tale of a marriage in crisis, with its devastating line, ‘I don't even love you anymore.' “By the time the band got their hands on it we ended up with a southern soul song with a goth chorus,” says Gillespie. “I think there's a duality: having a sense of wonder at the universe, but sadness too. I like the idea of an older guy, cynical but romantic, singing with a younger woman who is still a bit more hopeful.”
Every artist draws on their own experience to inject a song with truth and feeling. This is not, however, an autobiographical album, not least because Gillespie remains a happily married father of two. “My life is good, but when you write a song you marry the personal with the fictional and make art. I'm a songwriter; I observe things. I was thinking about two people living alone, together but apart, existing and suffering in a psychic malaise, who plough on because of responsibilities and commitments. It's about the impermanence of everything — an existential fact that everyone has to face at some point in their lives.”
You Don't Know What Love Is features the line: ‘Sometimes I feel that love is a disease, like addiction, that first ecstatic taste that we chase to oblivion.' “For me, a huge part of the appeal of taking drugs was becoming numb to your emotions, but the problem is that you're forever climbing mountains only to find there is nothing at the top,” says Gillespie. “You're detached, when really we're all seeking that deep human need for connection. Actually, You Don't Know What Love Is isn't really about addiction. It is about how you can never really know someone, but we'll always keep trying.”
“I recognised myself in Bobby,” says Beth. “Johnny Hostile and I don't drink or take drugs, but we're non-conformists. It meant we could understand his position in a non-judgemental way.”
Not that this translated into a tortured studio experience. “I wanted to be in the moment, having a good time with my friends,” says Beth of the recording process. “Bobby would sing my lyrics, I would sing his, and someone would crack a joke at the end of it. That is why I think the record has lightness, despite the subjects we're singing about.”
On You Can Trust Me Now, the male protagonist announces that his vices have been consigned to the past. “It could be about gambling, violence, a sexual thing… I left it open,” says Gillespie. “It's about someone with an anti-social problem who is full of remorse, trying to be readmitted into the human race. I'm just trying to be an artist, and make songs with relevance to people who have been through similar things.”
Ultimately, Utopian Ashes is an album about struggle; “The struggle of trying to make something beautiful work in a hostile world of violence and chaos,” as Gillespie puts it. The Scott Walker-like waltz of English Town paints a bleak picture of bombed out pubs and chain-smoked faces. Sunk In Reverie captures the ennui and emptiness behind the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. These are aspects of life we can all relate to.
“No one, in white music at least, is writing a song like (If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want To Be Right,” says Gillespie. “It seems only black, working class American artists can say what they feel in direct language these days, but in the 60s and 70s country singers were writing about divorce, abortion, adultery… all that stuff. I wanted to do something similar. I wanted to put pain back into music.”
There is also a sense of coming home. Primal Scream have always pushed toward the new, from the kaleidoscopic rave of their 1991 masterpiece Screamadelica to the electronic dissonance and claustrophobia of 2000's XTRMNTR, but the band members share a lifelong love of soul, country, blues and rock'n'roll and that is what they drew on here.
“I wanted the same musicians playing the same instruments on every song, and I wanted to capture a certain mood and feel,” says Gillespie of the album, which was recorded live over five days, with another five days for overdubbing the strings and harps. “It is a sad record but I like sad music, these guys do it beautifully, and bar the Rolling Stones no other band can play with this kind of feel. Duffy's piano is incredible on the record. Innes's guitar playing is the best it has ever been. And Primal Scream have had a darker, ballad side from the beginning. For every Moving On Up there is a Damaged. Sorry to self-reference myself here but guilt, pain, remorse… It's always been there.”
Utopian Ashes is an album for people who have dealt with the inevitable sadness that comes with age and acknowledged the realities of life. It isn't dealing in fantasy, and there is no sweetening of the pill, but it does achieve what should be the goal of all good art: to make us feel less alone.
“In the same way you create characters for a novel, we've created characters here,” says Beth. “But you put yourself in it, because you're trying to understand the human situation. The singing has to be authentic. That's all that matters.”
“We all carry pain, guilt and remorse,” Gillespie concludes. “This is why I love the album. We're not trying to write a pop song. We're not making a party record. These are real songs about real people. Maybe they've been married a while. Maybe they've had kids. It's a struggle, right? But it's worthwhile to hang onto that idea. It is a heroic thing to keep trying to make things work.”
Rock & Pop