The gut feeling, on hearing ‘Let The Wolves Howl At The Moon’, the closer of the eighth studio album by Super Furry Animals, is one of disappointment. But before the difference between that statement and the album rating you can see out of the corner of your eye gives you a headache, let us explain why. ‘Hey Venus!’ is a very, very conventional record by a band famed and celebrated for being very, very unconventional. Ever since they first drove their psychedelic tank through the hole in the wall of British rock dynamited by Oasis, SFA have orbited their own planet. Cut off from the mainstream by never defining themselves by trends, movements or scenes, their innate pedigree has meant they’ve been able to plough their own furrow while never being sidelined. Up until now they’ve excelled in extremes – be it via the planet-raising epic-ness of last album ‘Love Kraft’ or the exhilarating lo-fi storm of 2000’s ‘Mwng’. You wonder if it’s at all right that such a group should produce a collection of songs marginally more experimental than the new Coral album.
The good news is that after about three listens, you’re not left wanting a male Welsh choir to send a song’s chorus to Mars, a 15-minute techno wig-out, or a guest rap from Goldie Lookin Chain (as heard on best-suppressed EP track ‘Motherfokker’). Instead, you let the disappointment dissolve in the wake of the realisation that, 11 years into their career, SFA have produced some of their most beautiful songs yet.Not that conventional songwriting has come at the expense
of the humour that has seen the Furries dress as yetis, write
a song about a hamster called Stavros and be urinated on by a golden retriever in a promo video. “This song is ‘The Gateway Song’/It brings you on nicely to the harder stuff/And once you get hooked you can’t get enough”, Gruff Rhys sings (almost laughs, actually) on honky-tonk opener ‘The Gateway Song’. It’s over after 43 seconds. Thankfully, the following ‘Run-Away’ lasts for longer than a Countdown round. Its Christmassy bells give it an edge of classic Motown soul, and with a chorus as big as guitarist Huw Bunford’s new serial-killer beard, it’s up there with the most finely polished weapons in the SFA armoury. Then there’s ‘The Gift That Keeps Giving’, which not so much raises the bar, as balances it on top of Mount Snowdon. From a foundation of ELO guitar cloud-swells, Gruff’s Elvis Costello-in-a-bubblegum-bath voice wraps around tender trombone parps to create the band’s most beautiful moment since ‘Demons’.
Still, “tender”, “beautiful”, “ELO” – these are words and phrases that have seen some Furry fans keep their distance over the past few years, yearning for the scarves-in-the-air Britpop-tinged blast of the band’s 1996 debut ‘Fuzzy Logic’. ‘Neo Consumer’ is a shepherd’s crook around the neck of these fans. Rushing and pricklingly electric like an escaped dodgem, it boasts a football-chant chorus that cuts as sharp as any ‘Chelsea Dagger’. Back-pedalling? Tell the room full of indie kids bopping like their beer cans depended on it at a recent
Club NME bash, when the song was played straight after The View’s ‘Superstar Tradesman’.
Despite this high G-force moment, most of ‘Hey Venus!’ hikes down slower, defter paths. ‘Carbon Dating’ is bow-tied in the kind of strings Gruff once brilliantly claimed made it on to Super Furries records because of the heavy influence The Lighthouse Family have on the band. Which, strangely, makes us like it more. The waterbed-soft ‘Suckers’ is built on a raft of acoustic strums and ice-crack guitar, and needs little more than its chest-heating melody to make it something to cherish. It’s not all salivation and worship: ‘Baby Ate My Eightball’ is the only song remotely approaching a dud, and only because it reminds us of old single ‘Lazer Beam’ – the worst Furries song ever. One more negative? The album artwork makes you yearn for a Doherty blood portrait. The band have ended a decade-long association with Plastercine monster-maker Pete Fowler in favour of surreal Japanese artist Keiichi Tanaami. We prefer funny creatures with a Cyclops eye…
Scary drawings aside, ending on fragile closer ‘Let The Wolves Howl At The Moon’ – a buffer cousin of 2001’s ‘Run Christian, Run’ – ‘Hey Venus!’ is a fantastic pop record. It squirts at the seams with many of the greatest moments of the Furries’ career – a career that could still be yet to peak. Today, and for years to come, people will discover ‘Definitely Maybe’ and ‘Everything Must Go’ and fall in love the bands that made them. But while it’s hard to imagine your younger sibling going nuts for Oasis after hearing ‘Don’t Believe The Truth’, the melodies on ‘Hey Venus!’ are certain to ensnare new hearts in a way hardly any bands who’ve been around as long as the Furries can.