Review: Bobby Gillespie And Jehnny Beth Create Musical Sparks Out of Relationship Ashes

Bobby Gillespie & Jehnny Beth
Utopian Ashes
(Third Man)
4 out of 5 stars

Love him or not, Primal Scream’s irrepressible frontman Bobby Gillespie has never been predictable. He has led his band from the retro psychedelic flower power in 1987 through the EDM/electronic enhanced club pop in 2016. Five years later he switches gears again on his first solo stab, sharing headlining status with the far less recognizable Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth.

Since three other members of Primal Scream are here as backup along with Beth’s musical partner Johnny Hostile playing bass, both Bobby and Jehnny have maintained connections with their full time gigs. Still, this feels like a fresh start. Beyond the male/female frontline, it’s a concept piece that follows a crumbling long term relationship with both participants trying to find the dissipated love again.

It’s not the most innovative idea. Still, the duo makes no excuses about referencing other classic male/female twosomes like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris or Tammy Wynette and George Jones, who also worked similar territory in a comparable musical palette. Once you know the conceptual backdrop, song titles such as “Remember We Were Lovers, “Your Heart Will Always Be Broken,” “Living a Lie” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” fit into the storyline without hearing either the lyrics or relatively somber, yet wonderfully melodic music.  

As the downbeat theme implies, the disc is a sonically melancholy, but never…well, seldom, depressing outing. Opening “Chase It Down” with its mid-tempo strum and sumptuous/subtle strings (the credits list five violins, cello and even harp) sets the tone. A substantial soul vibe informs tracks like “Remember We Were Lovers” and adds the ghostly country undercurrent to “You Can Trust Me Now,” the latter with the chilling lines, You turned into someone I didn’t know. That is emphasized by the following “Living a Lie,” where Beth whispers, You wonder why I don’t have sex with you anymore?/Well, without trust how can there be love?  

Ultimately, there isn’t a positive resolution to this piercing heartbreak. But the magic is generated in the tale and in potently crafted songs that feel lived in and real. Much of it is taken from life experiences (with often wincing details, how could it not be?) but both confirm this is a fictional account. Gillespie and Beth make a wonderful pair since both are heavy lidded singers who bring unvarnished honesty and pathos to their performance.

The often biting words and smoldering intensity of the tunes, also reflected in the cover painting, creates a set that’s emotional and moving, often intensely so. Those who know Gillespie’s more strident work with Primal Scream will likely be surprised at his restrained, almost crooning approach here. Beth is less renowned but her input, especially in her understated, yet potent vocals, is invaluable.

Whether this is the beginning of an extended musical partnership or just a one-off, it’s a powerful and rewarding album. That’s especially the case for those who have been through the more challenging parts of the broken relationship mill.

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