Searching for Meaning and Truth in America
Gruff Rhys’ American Interior album is part of an ambitious multimedia project that includes a film, a book and an app in addition to this record. The entire project examines the experiences of both the 18th century Welsh explorer John Evans (one of the first Europeans to map the Missouri River) as he searched for a fabled, Welsh speaking lost tribe, and Rhys’s own personal journey tracing Evan’s course.
The best concept albums – whether narrative like Electric Light Orchestra’s Eldorado, or the high concept Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes – are able to convey the concept to the listener while simultaneously creating a sense of place of the world the story inhabits. Rhys manages this by folding in a wide variety of American musical flourishes and flavors throughout the record. There’s a little bit of Elvis in “100 Unread Messages,” a smidge of Stevie Wonder’s electric piano in “The Last Conquistador” and a healthy helping of Elmer Bernstein in “Iolo.” Stylistic cribbing isn’t the only way that Rhys ties the album to the titular American interior. There is an expansiveness to record, a fullness and breadth of sound, that triggers the same awe that one feels when driving across the great plains, overwhelmed by grandeur of the broad vistas that trail off beyond the horizon.
It is difficult to look at concept albums on a purely musical basis since the work is ostensibly about something larger. Rhys is successful at intertwining the narrative of his journey with that of Evans. While the recounting of Evans’ life in the new world in “100 Unread Messages” might seem to be a little on the nose, it serves as a nice preface to the rest of record, giving some much needed context. The mythic quality of the Evans story makes songs like “Last Tribes” and “Walk Into the Wilderness” work on both a literal and metaphoric level, giving Rhys a means to propel both stories at the same time.
This is a stellar record that works excellently as individual songs and as a whole. Plan on giving the album a full listen the first time round, so you can appreciate the piece in its entirety.