Bobby gillespie, lead singer of Primal Scream, teamed up with Jehnny beth Savages for their first collaboration, Utopian ashes, a beautifully dark and gray project. His alt-rock styles feature a series of songs that revolve around a falling apart relationship. With the inevitable end of a marriage in sight, musicians struggle with broken hearts and the inability to articulate or express emotions. It’s a refined and eloquently composed album, featuring just nine songs, the light vocals and arrangements of the duo display high levels of collaboration and raw talent.
Now it should be noted that Utopian ashes is a concept album, built around the duo’s shared love for battered country duos; it is an anti- “Islands in the Current”. Gillespie and Beth have never dated, let alone married. The stories are based on the characters they created. But they were also joined by their respective musical families: Jehnny Beth’s bassist, Johnny Hostile, and Andrew Innes of Primal Scream (guitar), Martin Duffy (piano) and Darrin Mooney (drums).
The album begins with “Chase It Down”, Gillespie’s panting voice guided first by a funky riff, then by regular strumming and layers of orchestral strings and Beth’s accompaniment on the chorus. The lyrics tell of the pursuit of a love that should have been given up. This is one of the more upbeat tracks on the album, moving at a brisk pace with an anthemic post-chorus, giving the false illusion that the couple could work it out.
However, by the second song, “English Town”, it is clear which story the album is centered on. Gillespie also conducts this track, a Leonard-Cohen waltz, as he does most of the album, singing “wild children on zombie drugs” and hoping he doesn’t “die in this cold English town this morning. evening”. It’s gray and spooky, much like the standard image of Glasgow, which Gillespie is from. Even the lightest “la la la” during the bridge cannot take the song away from its morbid style, buried in the cold hard ground.
The single “Remember We Were Lovers” begins with slow drums and guitar playing, immediately sounding downtrodden and broken. “Am I a fool for wanting you again? / After all we’ve been through / We’re martyrs in a marriage / In a war we’ll lose,” sing Jehnny Beth and Bobbie Gillespie.
On “Your Heart Will Always Be Broken,” Beth leads the song with Gillespie’s voice coming in at the end of the first chorus and working to back it up. Starting with a single guitar set and fitting into light piano work, it lasts over six minutes and is worth every minute. The duo’s voices work well together when harmonizing, while effectively countering each other in style and perspective. It ends with a sonorous cacophony as Gillespie’s voice envelops itself in shadows and inevitable shattering.
“You Don’t Know What Love Is” follows, starting with a line so depressing that without the fluidity and talent of the artists it would be too much to bear. “Sometimes I think love is a disease like addiction / At first an ecstatic taste that we chase into oblivion,” Gillespie sings, breathing heavily on a melancholy piano. He talks about the pain of living and the feeling of love that no one gives.
“Living a Lie” starts off as a sparkling and mystical fairy tale, but right away Gillespie reminds us that this is a breakup album, so the seemingly light music is no happiness story for always. “I’m in pain baby, but so are you / It’s time to say goodbye,” he sings in the opening verse. He and Jehnny Beth approach the subject from opposing angles, creating characters that are both revealing and complicated for themselves. “You tried to go to heaven / But you have no religion,” he moans, as Beth echoes in the background, “You come home deranged, acting guilty and weird.”
“Sunk in Reverie” concludes the album, a strange and evocative song, which starts with a mid-tempo acoustic guitar. Gillespie sings about the experience of a spiritual commotion of “all those dirty, old-fashioned people” falling at his lover’s feet. Telling the fake blood-sucking vampires that one meets at a party (code for appropriators and posers), he effectively concludes an album that feels entirely soaked in the gray haze and billows of fog.