In an age of streaming and random shuffle, it is more important than ever for an album to create an expertly curated journey that explores varied sounds and emotions while forming a coherent whole. With the 25th album on which he has performed (including numerous with Super Furry Animals), Gruff Rhys proves himself to be an expert guide for a trip through his cosmos. On ‘Sadness Sets Me Free’, the music takes in the psychedelic pop for which he is best known together with country rock and Tropicalia while the lyrics delve into memories of personal incidents gone wrong, wordplay and wider political skullduggery.

Opening with the magnificent title track in which Rhys instantly finds himself “In the nightclub of my mind / I’m doing cocaine in the cloakroom” as he engages in a tussle to emerge a better version of himself. In this struggle, he is accompanied by a beguiling piano melody, pedal steel from Melin Melyn’s Rhodri Brooks, strings from the BBC Orchestra of Wales and backing vocals from Kate Stables of This Is The Kit. Somehow this avoids sounding overstated and the song battles between euphoria and melancholy in which the buoyant feeling narrowly wins despite a mournful fade out.

‘Bad Friend’ begins a run of sublime pop songs. The piano and strings accompany a narrative from a lugubrious but well-meaning Rhys that mixes the prosaic (feeding the kids, caravan holidays, warm beer and wet chips) with surreal, self-deprecating imagery (“I’m as reliable / As asking a seal to deliver the post / Or a random Pokémon to remember the number of your phone”). Lead single, ‘Celestial Candyfloss’, had already marked out the album as a spectacular meteor to watch. From its eminently satisfying title through its piano, strings, guitar riff and array of twists and flourishes, alongside wordplay in which his baritone stammer leads to his occupation being misunderstood as barrister rather than barista, it is such a sweet, soaring pop song. ‘Silver Lining Lead Balloons’ is back flicking across the happy/sad barometer with tunes to keep you going through the pain before Rhys leaves his dreams in a rental car.

Having served up some glorious pop confections, the album heads towards the abyss with ‘The Far Side of the Dollar’ on which Rhys’s vocal tones shifts from the laidback to the virtually comatose, the piano crawls and atonal strings emulate crashes while oceans and breezes struggle to breathe and talk. Rousing itself, ‘They Sold My Home To Build A Skyscraper’ could be categorised as space age Tropicalia while quietly condemning development. The lines referencing, “On the dance floor where we met / Now stands a luxury development /A future dive / To be knocked down” sounds especially pertinent as venues struggle to survive at the expense of city centre redevelopment. It begins what could be seen as the album’s political trilogy. With its pounding piano, horn surges and string swells, ‘Peace Signs’ mixes social commentary (“Lease signs / Heads for sale / Culture wars / And shit for brains) with unrequited love. ‘Cover Up The Cover Up’ is revolutionary but reasonable in its request to reinvent the government, overthrow the monarchy and private school system while freeing the media from oligarchs. Using twinkling electronics and Rhys’s voice at its most understated (which, let’s face it, even at its most expansive is a far cry from Welsh valley belters), it makes for a sleepy coaxing rather than a demonstrative cajoling.

‘Sadness Sets Me Free’ reaches virtual collapse with the country-tinged lament, ‘I Tendered My Resignation’, although there is a tragicomic element to the image of Rhys packing his belongings into a wheelbarrow as he regretfully walks away from a relationship. Scraping together remnants of defiance, the album closes with the rolling piano melody and orchestral overload of ‘I’ll Keep Singing’ which sees Rhys howling while with neat symmetry ends with him repeating “Sadness sets me free”. It completes ten tracks of musical and lyrical mood swings without any missteps, an album of shade and even greater light.

Gruff Rhys: Sadness Sets Me Free – Out 26th January 2024 (Rough Trade)

Rhys – Celestial Candyfloss (Official Video) (


I was editor of the long-running fanzine, Plane Truth, and have subsequently written for a number of publications. While the zine was known for championing the most angular independent sounds, performing in recent years with a community samba percussion band helped to broaden my tastes so that in 2021 I am far more likely to be celebrating an eclectic mix of sounds and enthusing about Made Kuti, Anthony Joseph, Little Simz and the Soul Jazz Cuban compilations as well as Pom Poko and Richard Dawson.