It’s all a question of timing. In the middle of the 1990s, British popular music seemed to be experiencing a form of collective hysteria that reached its peak with the ludicrous battle between Oasis and Blur over reaching the number one spot in the singles charts in August 1995, and as union flags started to adorn just about every piece of merchandise available, I had a feeling that a hegemony was being built within British pop music that might end up with a wasted legacy as musical conservatism pushed more experimental artists from the public eye.
For those who were prepared to scratch under the surface, though, there were still pearls to be found amongst the swine that was those who had caught the Britpop wave, and few of those pearls shined brighter than Super Furry Animals. This was a band who transcended the narrow strata that almost all of the rest of those of a Britpop ever allowed themselves to follow, who eschewed Paul Weller and the Beatles in favour of psychedelia, techno and punk, and as with many bands who are the exception of an era rather than part of the rule, they have aged almost infinitely better than almost all of their contemporary peers.
The extent to which this is true is at its most striking when listening back to “Songbook: The Singles Volume 1,” a greatest hits album which provides not only perfect primer to the band but also a glimpse at the heart and soul of one of the most inventive and eclectic bands of the last two decades. Appropriately enough, even the track listing to “Songbook” sticks two fingers up in the direction of convention. Rather than following the tried and tested chronological route that most greatest hits albums tend to follow.
The set list for this album jumps about through the band’s first ten years – this album was initially released in 2004 – with a glorious disregard for chronology, opening with “Something For The Weekend” (and to the extent to which I can criticise this album, from an entirely personal point view I would have preferred the spikier version of this song, which opened their debut album “Fuzzy Logic” to the somewhat more horizontal version that was released as a single and features here) before jumping forward to the luxurious lugubriousness of “It’s Not The End Of The World”, a song about ageing and death which somehow even manages to make these twin foes sound curiously reassuring.
It is this combination of luxuriousness and inventiveness that is really the defining feature of Super Furry Animals. The outstanding “Juxtaposed With U,” for example, combines lush guitar licks that are curiously reminiscent of Hot Chocolate with an auto-tuned vocal during the verses and a chorus featuring the instantly memorable couplet of, “You’ve got to tolerate all of the people that you hate/I’m not in love with you, but I won’t hold that against you.” This is a song with a sweeping, almost cinematic sensibility, an epic number that somehow manages to wrap itself up in just over three minutes.
If “Juxtaposed With U” is a classy pastiche of Philadelphia soul which captures considerably more of the spirit of that genre than those who would consider themselves the natural successors of the likes of The Stylistics or Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes could ever manage, then this isn’t the only genre of music that the band chooses to lovingly caress on “Songbook.” There’s a less than two minute long spurt of psychedelic glam rock to be heard in “God! Show Me Magic,” whilst “Play It Cool” is easy listening as performed by Brian Eno and “Ice Hockey Hair” manages to melt down around six different 1970s stadium rock bands into a delicious, glitter-coated slush.
I could, of course, go on. Each of the twenty-one singles on “Songbook” (every single that the band had released to that point, no more, no less) could warrant a paragraph of its own here, every sound and every note lovingly dissected and explained, but that doesn’t feel right in the case of Super Furry Animals. This is a band is that you feel as much as hear, a state of mind rather than a commodity. It matters not whether the lyrics are sung in Welsh or contain well over fifty “fucks.” These are aural experiences rather than songs, and this album is a more than welcome reminder of the rewards that are there for musicians who are prepared to show a little daring when considering their musical influences.
In terms of how they fitted into the landscape from which they emerged, perhaps the most salient compare and contrast is with Oasis, one of the juggernauts of the era. Both were signed to Creation Records and both were happy to delve into music’s back catalogue in order to find their inspiration, but it is here that comparisons between the two end. There has always been something fundamentally unsatisfactory about the well worn line that, “Talent borrows, genius steals,” and the deficiencies in such a view are utterly evident here. Whereas Noel Gallagher often simply lifted whole sections of other people’s songs – from the piano line from “Imagine” to Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” a piece of musical larceny so blatant that the song that leaned upon it, “Step Out,” had to be pulled from “What’s The Story (Morning Glory),” before resurfacing as a B-side with a co-writing credit for two of the original song’s writers – Gruff Rhys seems to always having given the impression of having listened to and absorbed the voices of the past, before distilling them into something thoroughly modern and original. True genius, we might contend, doesn’t need to steal.
There was a point quite early on in the career of Super Furry Animals when it felt as if this was a band that might stray a little too closely into publicity stunt territory, most memorably seen when the band bought a tank, painted it blue and spent a summer touring festivals in it. Those days are long gone now, and with the passing years it seems increasingly plausible that there will be no end from the hiatus that the band put itself on in 2010, although rumours have been persistent that there will be a return once the band’s members have ended other ongoing projects. With his Neon Neon side-project and the documentaries “Separado!” and “American Interior,” singer and ring-leader Rhys may already be considering that if Super Furry Animals are to return, it will have to be with something pretty special. “Songbook” perfectly demonstrates how capable he is of delivering us the sublime and the wonderful. In a musical environment that feels as anaemic as it does today, perhaps we need the return of Super Furry Animals more than ever.