Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth make an odd couple – he’s prone to cowardly, decadent, drugged overtures as she screams in a primal way – and their differences become even more apparent on Utopian ashes, a kind of concept album they produced together on the preamble of a divorce between two lovers. And like any couple in disarray, the Venn diagram of their respective worlds barely seems to intersect. When they do, it can be beautiful; when they don’t it’s uncomfortable to be there, but even then their unique talents can sometimes be the savior of a song.
Gillespie proved himself in the early ’90s on a ridge of acid house beats and’ 70s nostalgia with Primal Scream, including the sprawling Screamadelica recently ranked among Rolling stones list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Jehnny Beth rose to fame ten years ago, singing hymns about love over vicious post-punk blasts in the band Savages, and she recently made her solo debut with the challenge and cerebral To love is to live, which Rolling stone declared one of the best albums of 2020. The roots of Utopian ashes extends to an inspired and trippy cover of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s bizarre psychedelic psych-pop love song “A velvet morning” which Beth performed with Primal Scream in 2016. They had met a year earlier when electro-punk band Suicide invited each of them to make appearances at a concert in London, after which Gillespie and Beth, who are not in a relationship, worked their meditation on the canceled wedding, musically inspired by the time of Nancy Sinatra and rock of the 70s.
But the concept is not completely up to the task, because Utopian ashes ultimately sounds like a Primal Scream record with Beth’s voice piercing through the dreamy arrangements. Three of Primal Scream’s core members over the past 24 years play the music with longtime Beth collaborator Johnny Hostile, but even with Gillespie and Beth’s most trusted support, it doesn’t quite connect. The single “Remember When We Were Lovers” moves to a calming clip and Beth seems frustrated not with the romance but with trying to fit into a breathless ballad, while “Living a Lie” splits the difference. between ’60s psychedelia and Britpop as Beth recites a mundane poem about how “without trust, how can there be love?” In fact, most of the lyrics are like, “You want to receive love but no one gives it.” (This one comes from “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” a song that offers a more touching vibe through the melodies and music of the singers more than the words.)
Ironically for a breakup album, Gillespie and Beth sound better when working together. Their vocal harmonies on “English Town”, a beach-rock waltz inspired by Serge Gainsbourg, go together wonderfully, and the way they trade complaints against each other with a little sadness in their voices on the piano ballad. Stonesy “Your Heart Will Always Be Broken” sounds compelling. And the more upbeat and jazzy “Stones of Silence” on which Beth shows all the Patti Smithiness of her voice is a welcome invigorating moment on an otherwise sleepy album. proof that, like most relationships where partners separate, Utopian ashes could have benefited from Beth and Gillespie to spice things up more to keep things interesting.