Gruff Rhys has done a lot of touring since 1995, when Super Furry Animals first hit the road, and he’s stayed in a lot of hotels. Naturally enough, he has chosen to record 16 years of touring life in the form of the miniature shampoo bottles he collects wherever he stays. He now has “around 574”, all catalogued and, in typically unpredictable style, he has based his new album around them. Each tiny, glowing bottle is a portal into an episode from the past – or at least that’s the conceit. The Hotel Shampoo album cover shows 13 bottles, one for each song, and accompanying photos show Gruff drinking one down like a particularly hairy Alice knocking back her shrinking potion. The shampoo brew propels him into a hazy world of gently psychedelic lounge grooves and half-remembered relationships.
Each song comes with a different woman, but Gruff is no clichéd rock-and-roller. The album opens with a car radio tuning through stations until it lights on an infectious guitar melody, sampled from 60s band Cyrkle’s ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’, and ethereal backing vocals filtering through static. ‘Shark Ridden Waters’ is about a friendship that got complicated. Gruff “would love to be a pal to the end”, but “I don’t know what happens to me when you come along, it’s just the way the sunlight catches your hair.” The singer rehearses the conversations he never had, remembering the good and the bad and, although the music sets a nostalgic tone, there is introspection rather than sentimentality.
‘Shark Ridden Waters’ sets the tone. ‘Honey All Over’, is a song about an enticing woman who’s “also all over you”, and it’s a strangely seductive shower gel which gets you into “the stickiest situation”. The delicious melody is straight out of 1967 but the added silliness is pure Rhys. ‘Sophie Softly’ lives in the same era, sister to Donovan’s ‘Jennifer Juniper’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Julia Dream’, and comes complete with a toytown piano and shimmering psych guitar line.
Elsewhere authentically 60s pop is fused with added exuberance with mariachi brass on ‘Sensations in the Dark’, while ‘At the Heart of Love’ is a more urgent cousin to Fresh Maggots acid-folk classic ‘Rosemary Hill’. ‘If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)’ is a charming, deceptively simple piano ballad which gradually reveals complex layers of instrumentation. The crunchy guitars and theremin swirls of ‘Christopher Columbus’ tell the story of another dead relationship in which mutual failings are projected onto history in comically exaggerated fashion (“just like Christopher Columbus after 1492, you have a lot to answer for”).
The album’s darkest moments are perhaps its best: bitter-sweet conjunctions of regret and irresistibly elegiac tunes. ‘Vitamin K’ is suffused with remorse, “where the fragments of the past come tumbling sharply now into focus” and “gallons and litres of shame” come gushing down but “what matters is what happened to you my love”. The lyrics are diamond-sharp, events of the past examined with the remorseless, forensic focus of a Julian Cope, seeing the world in a toy fire engine on the cover of Fried. ‘Rubble Rubble’ takes a collapsing house as the metaphor for a failing relationship, where “as the paint flakes and peels away, I can hear the wind whistling”, and ends the album on a despairing note as the song dissolves into fragments and seems to drift away into space.
A profound commitment to silliness inevitable means that some songs are more substantial than others, the slighter ones including the idle word play of ‘Conservation Conversation’ and the too-syrupy duet with Swedish singer Sarah Assbring on ‘Space Dust #2’.
Gruff Rhys is one of the most original and understated musicians around. Since Super Furry Animals became part-time he has located the space to cultivate his personal, ever-more compelling fantasies. From children’s TV (Candylion) to John DeLorean (Neon Neon) to his album with home-made noise merchant and Brazilian TV repair man Tony da Gatorra, The Terror of Cosmic Loneliness, his moves have been a succession of unpredictable delights. It is no surprise that he pulls off another micro-masterpiece with Hotel Shampoo, an album of gorgeous, bardic songs that glows like the backlit hair products on its cover.