Bobby Gillespie and Jhenny Beth
Third Man Records
We love those heartbreak albums and duets. Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, the Richard and Linda Thompson devastation that played out over a half dozen records but was so brutally captured on one in particular – and as an aside to that, sometimes linked, the male/female duet across country-soul and baroque balladry, from whoever Serge Gainsbourg could find to creep on (including, ew, his pubescent daughter) to the careful staging of Nick Cave with Kylie Minogue and the more recent pairing of Isobell Campbell and Mark Lanegan. Both of those couplings – and this one right here too – seem largely in dutiful tribute-service to the all-timer: Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood (but let’s chuck in Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner while we’re at it).
Heartbreak ballads that chart the end of a relationship are most certainly a thing and sometimes they didn’t have to be about a real romantic relationship – or even a duet for that matter (Dolly wrote I Will Always Love you about ending her working relationship with Porter).
But here the ex-Savages singer (Beth) and the Primal Scream frontman (Gillespie) have all of that firmly in mind. So much so they have written very real songs about a very fake divorce. Yep. These two weren’t coupling, let alone consciously undoing that – but the songs here on Utopian Ashes and the theme of the record will tell you that they were and they are.
Of particular interest to me is how moved I am by two singers whose primary band vehicles I never cared all that much about. But then again I felt that way about Campbell and Lanegan’s records – preferring their joint magic to much of the work they’d done separately and beforehand.
I don’t hate Primal Scream at all. I just have always felt something slightly off towards the hype, a hideously overrated band, or just something I wasn’t really there for when they rode that first wave? Probably that. And boy did they ride it hard. Them and the fans. That said, my favourite Scream record – all up – is definitely Give Out But Don’t Give Up – and some of that sound is borrowed for Ashes; what with the Scream bandmates assisting (along with Beth’s foil, Johnny Hostile). I could barely ever believe Primal Scream – because they were never anything other than elegant fakers – but when they tapped towards a spoiled-brat version of Southern soul it worked for them. And it mostly worked for me too. That spirit and sound imbues many of the tracks here.
But the songs are strong – the theme overtly in place. And the singers commit. Gillespie might never have been my favourite singer but I trust in his taste and when he’s singing lovelorn, about addiction, about failing, about partying too hard and living seemingly inside the worn threads of a Kris Kristofferson cast-off, well that’s when I utterly believe him. I trust in his taste too – as selector and song-styler. Beth though, she’s a great singer. And here she really shines. As accompanist and lead. And I believe her more than I ever have.
It’s a great balancing act – because it could all so easily have fallen over into Nick Cave Fakery, into those menacing tropes he propagates. But no. There’s a realness to this – because you believe these two have done the work and believe in the work, not just their own but the source material. You imagine this project starting with a get-together to listen to Marvin Gaye and Tammy Wynette and everything in-between.
And that really appeals. And it really counts too.
From the scorched-earth doom of You Don’t Know What Love Is to the almost disco-referencing lushness of Chase It Down (who doesn’t love a wah-wah and strings!) the arrangements are king here. The emotions seem real. The commitment is obvious. The feeling is true. This is country-soul and gentle folk and bummed-out balladry. And you can hear the cleverness at every turn. But you don’t resent it. You have to admire it.