Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth. Certainly an odd coupling on paper; one an elder statesman of the indie rock world, the other an icon of abrasive post-punk. You certainly wouldn’t imagine they’d ever collaborate, let alone on a full-length LP of country-inspired heartbreak ballads. On Utopian Ashes, they've done just that.
Gillespie and Beth share a common vigour; a mutual manifesto of never remaining creatively stagnant. With their collaborative album, Utopian Ashes, the Primal Scream and Savages stars create a barren landscape of tumbleweed and emotional baggage, and invite you to step into their world.
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With the flourishing strings and dramatic accentuations, opener ‘Chase It Down’ echoes the cinematic opening of a spaghetti Western, as Beth and Gillespie narrate the messy breakdown of the protagonists’ relationship. Gillespie echoes “I don’t love you anymore” in the climax, but to whom does this character need to prove this to? Utopian Ashes doesn’t shy away from the tangled complexities of a break-up, as the Tom Waits-esque ‘English Town’ takes on a wish of futile escapism. ‘Remember We Were Lovers’ marries blissful harmonies with morose keys, providing a hopeless thesis on the nature of love: “we’re stupid and ungrateful, we’ll never ever learn”.
The album does not remain hopeless. ‘Your Heart Will Always Remain’ is an infectious roller that remains a sweet and sincere amidst the rocky patches, and the chemistry between Gillespie and Beth shimmers on ‘Stones of Silence’. Beth is playful and uncharacteristically understated, and whilst Gillespie has never been the greatest of vocalists, his pained delivery sells the fraught desperation of the lyrics. ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ sees Gillespie’s character contradict himself frequently; at the start damning love as “a disease”, but turning the tables upon his partner and saying that whatever love may be, she doesn’t know “what love is”. It’s this level of emotionally mature and layered writing that elevates Utopian Ashes into truly exciting territory, as Beth and Gillespie illustrate their imaginations to the listener.
“You turned into someone I don’t know” Beth sings on album highlight ‘You Can Trust Me Now’, a track that begins with a spoken word intro from Gillespie and ends with the same ghostly silence the intro emerged from; their vocal delivery is haunting in this atmospheric country stomp that offers no easy solutions. The album is a contained and relatable story of seeing the people you thought you love change through the inevitable struggle that comes with aging, which sees Gillespie come to the conclusion that this is “breaking our heart” on 'Living A Lie'. “Without trust, how can there be love?” Beth whispers, and though the breezy guitar chords and ethereal harps may say otherwise, there is no storybook happy ending awaiting this couple.
What awaits Beth and Gillespie’s characters at the end is uncertain. The latter describes “a void of all emotion, nothing left to thrill” on closer ‘Sunk In Reverie’, but there are no doors left shut. Similarly, all the doors are open now for these two artists; they were never contained to punk nor to baggy Weatherall remixes, but visionaries in their own right. Together they gel immaculately. Whatever they do next will be fine enough, and whether or not they make another record together is up in the air, yet to have a collaborative effort of this calibre feels like an honour bestowed upon us. It’s a theatrical, vulnerable album that may not exactly be easy-listening, but one that is simply an experience. One of 2021’s most unexpected delights, that’s for sure.
Utopian Ashes arrives 2 July via Sony Records.