BOBBY GILLESPIE AND JEHNNY BETH
Utopian Ashes (Sony)
There is a simple way to understand this kinda duet/kinda concept album of Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie and Savages’ Jehnny Beth (the French singer/songwriter Camille Berthomier who already has an official duo, John & Jehn), and it comes at the beginning of track six, You Don’t Know What Love Is.
As an all too aware piano evokes the murmurings of a patient bartender, a life-wearied Gillespie declares “Sometimes I think that love is a disease, like addiction/That first ecstatic taste that we chase to oblivion.”
Yep, things are not going well for Bobby or Jehnny.
On an album where emotions are as thick as the heavy air, Gillespie and Beth, as two lovers for whom that term has begun to curdle, sing from separate corners of the same room. He said and she said, he felt and she felt, he did and she did - until they didn’t any more. Who’s right? How did this start? It doesn’t matter now, even if either of them could remember.
If The Weeping Willows album also reviewed here today makes its setting clear with the title Southern Gothic, Gillespie and Beth - and Primal Scream, who operate as the house band on what is a Primal Scream album anyway - live that southern gothic.
Not for nothing are the lyrical suggestions and intimations in this nine-track song-cycle suffused with the idea of the verdant gone rotten, the passionate leached away, and the desire to run countered by the sense of being trapped in by the fecund life already led. Everything feels like it has a film of sweat on it and everyone feels like they’ve been disrobed metaphorically as much as literally – all vulnerabilities are exposed.
The tempos are measured in double not triple figures, and even when the voices rise lightly, as they do in the final track Sunk In Reverie, or groove rhythmically, as the backing vocals do in the opening Chase It Down, no one is shouting for attention.
It’s not that the feeling isn’t there but there isn’t the energy in this overhanging heat, in this aftermath of too much drink and too much drug, and some of the arguments have run themselves out. They’re all as spent as the love affair.
Musically, the southern gothic builds from rhythm and blues and country, but expands beyond the Mason-Dixon Line with this self-torturing couple occupying territory somewhere between the warped sardonic pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and the Rolling Stones’ narco-roots on one hand, and the mordant classism of Leonard Cohen, and corrupted adult cabaret of Serge Gainsbourg on the other.
So there is something of the raffish along with the ravaged, which is part of the reason why it never sinks into darkness, part of the reason these songs just feel so easy to take in, to drink to, to dance with. Yes, even if you are tempted to keep your distance from a couple of damaged people who thought they spied an open door but found a mess of vines and roots blocking their path.