On paper, ‘Utopian Ashes’ sounds like an unusual – and potentially risky – endeavour. Two of rock’n’roll’s brightest stars (one established for decades, the other still staking a rightful claim) teaming up to record a fictionalised pre-divorce album inspired by classic country duets is the definition of a niche undertaking.
In lesser hands, it could also be a train-wreck – as much as we’d all love to watch our heroes spontaneously team up for a karaoke rendition of ‘Islands in the Stream’, a whole album of the stuff has the potential to grate like a badly-fitted spur. There’s no such indulgence to be found on Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth’s collaborative album, however – as much as ’Utopian Ashes’ dives headfirst into the messy tangle of a relationship falling to bits, it’s also charming, playful, and informed by a love of vintage country rock in equal measures.
In teaming up for this record – both artists’ first truly collaborative full length album as solo artists – Gillespie and Beth are both exploring brand new directions together. It’s initially surprising to hear Beth, the fearsome Savages vocalist, bring a tender touch to the rich, twinkling country-rock and soul duets that characterise this latest project, but also extremely refreshing.
Though the album tones down the emotional heft of its biggest inspirations – favouring complex instrumentation and intermingling harmonies in favour of belting it out – its touchstones are clear: Dolly Parton, Neil Young, George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
“We may sleep together, but really we’re alone” they cry in unison on ‘Remember We Were Lovers’, before rich peals of horn overtake plaintive piano. Shimmering disco meets eerie Southern rock on ‘Chase it Down’, which exudes a certain lightness, despite the weight of its lyrics. In Savages, Beth had a gift for such unexpected playfulness, delivering some of her darkest observations with a smirk. That same touch is here in abundance: “Free fall from the love, who is gonna come and save us now?” she sings bouncily atop synthetic strings and a squalling guitar solo. ‘Your Heart Will Always Be Broken’ finds hope and resilience buried underneath its surface. And a spoken-word excerpt from Bobby Gillespie opens ‘You Can Trust Me Now”, who speaks of “feelings of guilt, shame and remorse.”
With ‘Utopian Ashes’, Beth and Gillespie continually harness such pain – and the strange bravery of a couple trying desperately to keep their lives together even as things fracture around them. It’s understated, and a quietly affecting success.
Release date: July 2
Release label: Third Man Records