The Super Furry Animals could never be faulted for lack of ambition. They’ve spent twelve years writing psychedelic nuggets that ably fuse rock, pop and techno with lyrics that are equal parts political and Dadaist. They’ve released the all-time best-selling Welsh-language album (2000’s Mwng). They commissioned videos for every song off 2002’s Rings Around the World, the first album ever to be released simultaneously in CD and DVD format, and then did it again for Phantom Power in 2003. They earned a Grammy nod for a series of unreleased Beatles tunes they remixed, and they’ve been known to travel between tour dates in a blue tank owned by Don Henley. So what’s left for these Cardiff crusaders to do? Make a half-assed album. And with his Welsh-language solo outing, Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, that’s just what the Furries’ lead singer, Gruff Rhys, has done.
Yr Atal Genhedlaeth (roughly, “The Stuttering Generation”) took shape when Rhys and producer Gorwel Owen laid down tracks for Super Furry Animal’s next album and ended up with a slew of leftovers. Rather than ditch Rhys’s surplus of ideas, they decided to record an album of songs stripped down to their base elements. Indeed, the songs on Yr Atal are simpler and looser than anything Rhys has released with his main gig. De facto opener “Gwn Mi Wn” has only a simple drumbeat and some layered vocals, and several other tracks add just a rhythm guitar or a wheezy synthesizer line.
The deal-breaker isn’t the minimalist sound per se. Plenty of bands have alchemized sonic gold from simple musical elements. But these songs sound too much like unfinished Super Furry Animal demos to carry any weight themselves. The triumphant chorus of “Pwdin Wy 1″would positively slay if it were given the full band treatment, but it’s hamstrung by Rhys’s rudimentary drumming and a conspicuous emptiness in the background. The glam boogie and infectious melody of “Y Gwybodusion” would fit perfectly on the Furries’ 1996 debut, Fuzzy Logic, if it weren’t so under-produced.
It might be easier to embrace Yr Atal‘s bare production if it were coupled with consistently strong material. But a number of these songs rely on repetitive, facile melodies that stick in your brain in exactly the wrong way. “Ni Yw Y Byd” is the worst offender, its maddeningly saccharine hook derived from a campfire sing-along in the depths of hell. Rhys supposedly wrote it “with a melody to try and explode people’s heads and get people dancing.” I’m not dancing, but one out of two ain’t bad.
Yr Atal Genhedlaeth isn’t totally bereft of charm, mostly due to Rhys’s exuberant vocals. His charisma easily breaks through the language barrier. But that’s what makes Yr Atal so maddening. Rhys is one of the world’s most capable frontmen and tunesmiths, and he could have cut a phenomenal album by fleshing out these songs and their skeletal arrangements — just listen to the gorgeous sweep of “Ambell Waith” for proof. Instead he recorded a disappointing sketchbook of undeveloped ideas, a mere placeholder for the next Super Furry Animals album.