By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Listening to the Super Furry Animals in the wake of 9/11, you can't help noticing the distinction between being ready to rock and ready to "roll." A few years ago, the Welsh band's most polemical move seemed to be encouraging U.S. fans to listen carefully to their beguiling culture-bending double album Mwng. In retrospect, Mwng seems quite political, indeed: A mass-marketed pop album sung entirely in Welsh? What may have been viewed by American audiences as a novelty upon release can now be seen as a broader cultural statement. But these days, everything seems more political, which might be why Rings Around the World (XL/Beggars Banquet)--SFA's fifth full-length, which entered the U.K. charts last July--today seems eerily prescient in its commentary on these post-attack times.
SFA's sharp lefty politics are not as well known in this country as they are in the U.K., perhaps because critics here seem less fascinated by their lyrics than by their "funny" English. But some American publications have followed the band's headline-making diatribes. A 1999 article in Magnet magazine, for example, uncovered that pacifist singer Gruff Rhys tagged U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair a "mass murderer" and a "war criminal" for Britain's role in the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia.
And then there are the band's tunes. The 1996 limited-edition single, "The Man Don't Give a Fuck," broke the U.K.'s Top 25 singles chart despite featuring 52 utterances of the word "fuck." Any wonder that it was never released in the States? Ponder that title at a time when world leaders from Blair to Ariel Sharon are launching military excursions with abandon. The band's back catalog, too, is loaded with socio-political pop manifestoes, from cheeky dissections of a culture based upon cell-phone dependency--1999's "Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home)"--to musings on the downside of a hedonistic lifestyle (1996's "Something 4 the Weekend").
On its surface, Rings Around the World is more a hyperkinetic cosmic razzmatazz than a raging screed: The album is a densely layered studio oddity that sounds as if it were twisting in limbo between the earth and the moon. At the fore is the warm pop song "It's Not the End of the World?" The track dawns like a 24-karat-gold sunrise, with Rhys assuring us all that despite aging, death, and other worries that seem to gnaw at us just before sleep, "It's not the end of the world." That's life, folks--we get old and die. Just take care to shake it while you've still got it. On the lush, sexy "Juxtaposed With U," Rhys suggests that you need to "tolerate all the people that you hate": The song is closer in kin to a remake of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" than the jiggle-heavy retelling of that song by Britney Spears et al. released last year as a benefit for United Way's September 11 fund.
But Rings Around the World is not merely a slice of pie-eyed optimism. Don't forget that this is, after all, a band that heralded its 1996 album, Fuzzy Logic, by rumbling through the European countryside in a tank. Although it was released before 9/11, the vaguely country-western "No Sympathy" can be interpreted as an examination of wanted-dead-or-alive foreign policy. And "Run! Christian, Run!" takes aim at the Christian Right: "Rapture/Waiting to capture that moment/Postponement/Suspension of rational movement." The closing track, "Fragile Happiness," though, resonates with optimism: "This fragile happiness/Keeps me from forgetting that this fragile happiness/Keeps me afloat when I'm sinking."
The British pop charts are already particularly heavy with subversive, socio-political acts (see: Radiohead, Primal Scream, or the Manic Street Preachers). Super Furry Animals could be the antithesis of these bands. While Thom Yorke wrings his hands to television static, Rhys unfurls his flag, gets his freak on, and proposes worthwhile resolutions to depressing problems--most simply, finding joy in his kaleidoscopic sounds. SFA has discovered the link between Sixties-era Merry Prankster-ism and the radical stunts practiced by techno hoodlums the KLF in the late Eighties/early Nineties. If goofy antics once made for a nice photo op, and if an album like Rings Around the World formerly just set toes tapping, then times have changed. Now, the rest of us are finally catching on to what SFA have been hip to all along: You can discover politics while dancing. Perhaps that makes the band all the more dangerous.