Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth are an odd coupling — he’s prone to loose, decadent, druggy overtures while she actually screams primally — and their differences become even more apparent on Utopian Ashes, a concept album of sorts that they made together about two lovers’ preamble to a divorce. And like any couple in disarray, the Venn diagram of their respective worlds seem only to intersect barely. When they do, it can be beautiful; when they don’t, it’s uncomfortable to be around, yet even then their unique talents can sometimes be a song’s savior.
Gillespie made his bones in the early Nineties riding a crest of acid-house beats and Seventies nostalgia with Primal Scream, whose sprawling Screamadelica recently ranked among Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Jehnny Beth came to prominence a decade ago, belting canticles about love over vicious post-punk explosions in the band Savages, and she recently made her solo debut with the challenging and cerebral To Love Is to Live, which Rolling Stone declared one of the best albums of 2020. The roots of Utopian Ashes stretch back to a trippy, inspired cover of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s teeth-gnashing psych-pop weirdo love song “Some Velvet Morning,” which Beth performed with Primal Scream in 2016. They’d met a year earlier when the electro-punk group Suicide invited each of them to make guest appearances at a London gig, after which Gillespie and Beth, who are not a couple, worked up their meditation on nuptials annulled, drawing inspiration musically from the Nancy Sinatra era and Seventies rock.
But the concept doesn’t totally deliver, since Utopian Ashes ultimately sounds like a Primal Scream record with Beth’s voice piercing through the dreamy arrangements. Three of Primal Scream’s core members for the past 24 years play the music along with Beth’s longtime collaborator, Johnny Hostile, but even with Gillespie’s and Beth’s most trusted support behind them, it doesn’t quite connect. The single “Remember When We Were Lovers” moves at a lulling clip and Beth sounds frustrated not with romance but with trying to fit into a breathy ballad, while “Living a Lie” splits the difference between Sixties AM psychedelia and Britpop as Beth recites a trite poem about how “without trust, how can there be love?” In fact, many of the lyrics are of the cliched “You want to receive love but no one’s giving” garden variety. (That one comes from “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” a song that delivers an affecting mood more through the singers’ melodies and music more than words.)
Ironically for a breakup album, Gillespie and Beth sound best when they work together. Their vocal harmonies on “English Town,” a Serge Gainsbourg-inspired beach-rock waltz, blend beautifully, and the way they trade off complaints about each other with a little bit of sadness in their voices on the Stonesy piano ballad “Your Heart Will Always Be Broken” sounds convincing. And the more upbeat, jazzy “Stones of Silence” on which Beth shows off the full Patti Smithiness of her voice is a welcome moment of invigoration on an otherwise sleepy album. It’s proof that, like most relationships where partners drift apart, Utopian Ashes could have benefited from Beth and Gillespie spicing things up more to keep things interesting.