Review: Gwenno – “Y Dydd Olaf”
As of late there seems to be a great deal of interest in the Welsh language – or at least a great deal more interest than is the norm. The tiny minority language has been disappearing in the UK for decades, and with scant attention paid. However there seems to be a grassroots preservation movement that, if not new, has at least received recent worldwide attention. The movement has been spearheaded by those seeking to promote and restore the language – people like Mr. Phormula, a Welsh language rapper. Or singer Meinir Gwilym. Or artist Cate Le Bon whose Welsh language debut EP remains some of her strongest work (though she mainly uses English nowadays).
Former Pipettes singer Gwenno Saunders is amongst those promoters, and her debut record Y Dydd Olaf could result in a number of non-Welsh ears hearing the language for the first time. If it gets out there that is. While Y Dydd Olaf recently took “Welsh Album of the Year,” so far its reach doesn’t seem to have extended as far as it could. And that’s a shame as the record is easily one of the best of 2015 so far – in Wales as well as the rest of the world. Though Saunders’ songwriting is incomprehensible to anyone but those few native speakers, the songcraft is able to speak without the meaning translating literally. Y Dydd Olaf is full of struggle, beauty, discord, and harmony. It’s ostensibly political but lacking the bluntness of making statements (or at least not statements most people can understand). Saunders creates ethereal pop music that mixes piano, synths, vocals, and field recordings. And while the mix is generally a gentle one, it does have some surprisingly danceable teeth to it.
The most obvious comparison that seems to come up is to London krautrock great Stereolab. And it’s an apt one. However there are also quite a bit of interesting dynamics that seem straight out of the Broadcast canon. Saunders created Y Dydd Olaf with producer husband Rhys Edwards and the pastiche of electronic noise, synths, and muted, ethereal vocals often brings to mind the “retro-futurism” that Broadcast’s Trish Keenan achieved in partnership with James Cargill (amongst others).
Hopefully like both Broadcast and Stereolab before her, Saunders will achieve a dedicated worldwide following. The Welsh language may be a barrier for some – but it seems essential to the artist’s sound. She named Y Dydd Olaf for a 1976 novel by Owain Owain in which the protagonist uses the Welsh language as a tool to fight robots that are intent on turning every person into a mental slave. And considering the strength of that metaphor, it would seem that Gwenno’s Welsh language roots are here to stay.
If she continues to write music as good as her first record perhaps we’ll all need to start learning a bit of Welsh.