At some point in all our lives, we have to deal with heartbreak. Whether it’s our first shattered relationship or a lifetime of memories that suddenly come to a bitter end, splits can be ugly, harrowing, and downright traumatic. When it comes to making music that reflects all that damage, what better interpreters of anguish and lost desire than Savages singer Jehnny Beth and Primal Scream leader Bobby Gillespie, who have teamed up on a new collaborative LP Utopian Ashes.
Chronicling the slow and painful dissolution of a marriage, from its initial cracks to the state of denial and eventually to the heartbreaking end, Utopian Ashes milks the drama of domestic misery for all it is worth. The constant back and forth nature of the collaborative project provides a refreshingly thorough and fully illustrated take on divorce and lost love, leaving no perspective or errant thought uncovered.
What’s impressive is how many genres the duo are able to traverse through their tale of disruption. The 1970s funk of album opener ‘Chase It Down’, the noir-tinged push and pull of ‘English Town’, the sweeping balladry of ‘Remember We Were Lovers’, the classic country duet honk of ‘Your Heart Will Always Be Broken’ — and that’s just in the first four songs.
‘Stones of Silence’ brings some jazzy rhythm and blues to the table, while ‘You Can Trust Me Now’ mixes spoken word passages with an insistent shuffle. The strings that fill out the album’s arrangements never feel intrusive or cheesy, amazingly. Instead, they heighten the drama of two people falling to pieces, much in the way that great orchestration often inspires emotions that are damn near impossible to articulate. When words fail or occasionally get redundant, the music says what you can’t.
Lyrically, the album plays its tale of woe as an extended play, with two characters who can’t get away from each other but need to make a change. The solution is to sing their regrets and grievances at each other for extended periods of time. Thankfully, neither singer falls into the trap of making such an emotionally charged series of stories curdle into tired cliches. It’s not exactly poetry, but the lyrics successfully communicate the overarching message of the album all the same.
If you don’t connect with it, Utopian Ashes can sometimes feel like anguish porn, withering in its own sadness without catharsis or true redemption. But it’s hard not to appreciate the beauty and tenderness in the music and lyrics, and for those unlucky enough to relate to the material, or those sympathetic enough to those scenarios, Utopian Ashes can be a companion through the process of guilt, shame, anger, repression, and dejection.
Answers aren’t explicitly given by the album’s end, but what Beth and Gillespie seem to indicate is that there are healthy ways to deal with trauma and heartbreak. Utopian Ashes is a pretty great way to deal with some of the most hurtful and negative emotions a person can feel.