One way to begin is to talk about Welsh culture, about the background of the language and its history and situation in England. A mention of Super Furry Animals’ recent release in Welsh may merit a comparison, background on Gwenno’s family (her father speaking Cornish and her mother Welsh) could follow. A brief mention that it was released last year on smaller Welsh label Peski before being picked up by Heavenly, then close out the piece with a few assertions that the music is so great it transcends language; the readers leave having learnt about Welsh in our world today and think that language is not the crucial piece of the release but the way in which music equalizes and forms a common language for us all allows anyone to enjoy what they choose.
We can talk about the album musically, toss around terms like ‘Krautrock’ and ‘space pop,’ then go into its production history. Talk about the collaborators involved, maybe even one of those comparison’s to Neu! people get so excited about, anything to get around talking about the lyrical content, before a production-based proposal that the record sounds so good it won’t matter that you can’t tell what she’s saying. Readers will listen for the components they have been told are there and not worry too much about the one they can’t fully get into and talk about the quality of the voice conveying it.
The album takes its title and conceptual framework from the dystopian Welsh novel Y Dydd Olaf, and one can contextualize the work by examining its source. Gwenno has spoken at length about how she found the book and decided to make the album and any of this material is worth quoting. The book is political and so too must the album be. The tracks are definitely saying something and we know this because the artist said so and told us about the book which also said so. We should be aware of this when listening but may not be able to tell completely so we should maybe bandy about more of that ‘space pop’ language. Readers will know there is a lot going on but it also sounds nice.
All of which is to say: we have been finding interesting ways of talking about a work which is not wholly accessible to us by avoiding talking about what is actually there. And, furthermore, how are we enjoying it despite knowing that we are missing a major component of the work?
I can extol the virtues of Françoise Hardy forever despite knowing almost no French (and that which I do being cribbed from such chansons). Does, as we are so fond of claiming, some emotion transcend the language? Is there something inherent there sonically? Am I so desperate to listen to female musicians that I’ll take them in any language I can get?
The political nature of the album then becomes apparent; the album does not aim to obfuscate itself but make a form of music accessible to an audience traditionally excluded as well as allow English listeners to experience pop the way non-English speaker may have, relating on an intangible level but with no less enthusiasm. One wonders then whether the structure of the sci fi story is redundant or needful. Does setting it in an alternate universe make the ideas set forth more palatable by non-Welsh-speaking listeners, or does it allow them to dismiss them as wholly unreal and othering?
The adaptation also raises the question of playing a role through music. Many will be familiar with Gwenno through her earlier work with The Pipettes, and Pipettes obsessives will recall that she had done Welsh albums in the past. She speaks of her experiences with The Pipettes now as having played a role already devised, but one say similarly of telling stories about aliens in an obscure language. One may perceive it as a gimmick complete with distance afforded by an alternate reality. Gwenno strives for a role as intermediary rather than outsider; it is unclear whether this is fully realized.
The album does sound great, and as a former Pipettes obsessive, I’m already sold. As for the questions the album raises and out attempts to contend with it through review, perhaps it will take few more close listens. We may yet pick up some Welsh and that alternate reality may not be so far from our own.
Gwenno’s Y Dydd Olaf is available now on Heavenly Recordings.