Gwenno’s songs of political and personal urgency gift the power of voice back to a once-extinct tongue, finds Will Burns.
Pop music is not, perhaps, always the obvious vessel for questions as profound, as important, as the nature of what really might be at stake when we think of language, and language’s life (and death) — what we talk about when we talk about language, one might say — but the singer-songwriter-producer Gwenno’s project goes deep enough into those questions of identity, language and place-making to warrant it.
Tresor, her latest, and second album mostly deploying the Cornish language, defies the easy starting point of lyrical recognition — the chances are (the 3000 or so Cornish speakers aside, of course) language will come to the listener here as tone, as atmosphere, as mood. The proposition, then, is essentially a poetic one. I’m thinking of Eliot’s quote that ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.’ Of course, Gwenno has other tools at her disposal, and the instrumental tracks hit as hard, emotionally, as the vocal. She has the moodboard of melody, the human voice and the musical choices she makes throughout. There is a movement from something almost classic-sounding here, a 60’s psychedelic pop soundtrack, towards something harder-edged, more electronic, angrier somehow. The tension is played for profound effect, Gwenno’s stated aim of creating a music that questions the conflict at the core of the self, or selves, with which we are sometimes saddled. Gender roles, the politics of ‘revived’ languages, second home ownership stripping places of their own identities — everywhere the concepts are complicated by their dialectical aspect. The final track, ‘Porth Ia’ — named for St Ives where Gwenno wrote the record — perfectly embodies this complication; as Gwenno herself has said, she feels the existential drag of a deep connection to a place she is not from. Her choice of deploying the Cornish language, then, becomes urgent in this light, becomes the arbiter of our own interaction not just with this set of songs, but with the place itself: Cornwall, yes, but extrapolated to take in England, Britain, Europe.
The whole is buoyed by impeccable production, sonic touchstones, influences and flourishes all handled deftly, the stylistic shifts never jarring, the almost narrative movement through sound paced to perfection. There is a Love-like quality to tracks like ‘An Stevel Nowydh’ and ‘Anima’, that breaks into an almost post punk electronica on ‘N.Y.C.A.W.’, the album’s Welsh-language track, and a hardline political statement about the impact of holiday homes in rural Wales. This is the landscape of Gwenno’s political concerns — a critique of capitalism-in-place, empathetic, human, and expressed through a striving, a questing, for language, or perhaps more accurately for a language-in-place. The place being song, speech, or the land itself.
And so we come, perhaps finally, to the quality of the human voice itself — specifically, here, Gwenno’s. Hers is a multi-faceted, dynamic instrument, capable of carrying the emotional weight necessary for what can sometimes — to these ears at least, and which of course is at the heart of the whole project — seem the wordless songs of her oeuvre. There is the soft croon of the album’s opening tracks, the cool pop-inflected voice of ‘Ardamn’, the dreamy lilt of ‘Porth Ia’. And always the words themselves, somehow just out of reach, falling on the ear like shards of something half-remembered. I think of Eliot again, telling us ‘The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.’ A language, once the tongue of the dead, ‘extinct’ at the end of the 18th century, finds voice here in songs of political and personal urgency.
‘Tresor’ is out now on Heavenly Recordings.