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Album Of The Week

Inner Visions: Tresor By Gwenno
Amanda Farah , June 30th, 2022 09:17

Gwenno's second (mostly) Cornish-language album runs merry minimalism against hard-edged modernism with enchanting results

Photo credit: Claire Marie Bailey

Welsh singer-songwriter-producer Gwenno Saunders has led the sort of varied career as a musician and an artist that should make any new turn in her work seem logical. Her third full length album, Tresor, is a journey through different stylistic approaches, traversing folk influences, hitting the bright pop tones she’s best known for, and looking in a more assertive direction.

Tresor is also Gwenno’s second album primarily in the Cornish language. With her previous album, Le Kov, Gwenno established the power of a catchy hook even if her intended audience might not know what they were singing along to. Tresor is similarly not accessible in the way we have become accustomed to things being accessible. You cannot currently use Google Translate to interpret Cornish to English, so any offer of compositional familiarity is an invitation of welcome. Album opener ‘An Stevel Nowydh’ introduces a warm, 60s nostalgia in its production that threads through the first few tracks. Its Love-reminiscent arrangements feed nicely into the quirky organ punches of ‘Anima’ and the chiming percussion and inviting vocals of the title track. It’s as if Gwenno wants the listener to know they are in familiar surroundings even if they can’t read the street signs.

With Le Kov, Gwenno also became the torch bearer for a language spoken at a conversational level by an estimated 3,000 people. The album brought attention to the status of Cornish and it was seen as much as a statement of identity as it was a memorable pop record. While the scale of the attention might have been surprising, the basis is not. Language is deeply personal. To be bi- or multi-lingual opens different modes of expressions. People become defensive when you speak a language they don’t understand in front of them – particularly if it is not the dominant language of the area. Choosing a language can be framed as choosing a side.

This context – or perhaps it’s baggage – resonates on the album’s Welsh language track ’N.Y.C.A.W.’, Nid yw Cymru ar Werth, or ‘Wales is not for sale’. It is a bold political statement that goes beyond the individual, that only works as a rallying cry. The song also feels like a departure for Gwenno, with a drier delivery more at home in post-punk than her usual colourful electronic pop. But this distance only underscores the emotion that hits on the full-throated chorus, a repeated call of the track title.

This darker, more detached style is also on display on ‘Ardamm,’ a tense seven minutes of Gwenno’s cool vocals that is insistent and assertive but builds to no climax. While she foregrounds this slightly harder delivery, layers of subtle sounds fill in the track: Passively strummed instruments are left to gently reverberate and ghostly vocals fill in space around her. The album is marked by these complex arrangements but against a brighter, warmer track they do not feel so stark. On ‘Ardamm’ the arrangement stands in contrast to a vocal that, in its steadiness, takes on an aggressive quality. Gwenno has said that Tresor is about women’s interiority, about reclaiming a body and an identity when an individual has to be many things to many people. Of course, ‘aggressive’ is one of those words that gets lobbed at women who make declarations about their selves, their needs, their identities or their powers. To establish boundaries may require reflecting such a coolness as on ‘Ardamm’ – something not obviously pretty, but wholly beautiful.

To say the album is about womanhood and recovering one’s identity is to plant a seed; most of us will have to take her word for it. But to say that the album is about one’s inner self does not stretch the imagination. Language can be used as abstraction and still be deeply imbued with meaning. Whereas artists like Elizabeth Fraser or Petra Haden have sung in languages with meaning only to them, Gwenno works with a code that can be readily cracked by few. Most listeners will have to wait for her to reveal these details to us.

The same could be said of instrumental music or songs with vocals buried deep in the mix or where the lyrics themselves are incidental and simply a vehicle for the voice. Tresor’s wordless tracks wrap up as much emotion as the others. The songs also offer some of the most striking experimentation on the album. ‘Men a Toll’ is a brief mystic interlude into programmed synths and found sounds, and ‘Keltek’ takes a turn from Computer World bleeps to some of the harshest, most metallic sounds on the album. If Gwenno faces an artistic challenge in knowing that her words may be misunderstood or not understood at all, these stylistic shifts convey different aspects of her personality and emotions vividly.

These different styles are sequenced into a narrative over the course of Tresor. Romantic nostalgia and warmth confront a toughened modernism. Folk influences bleed in through finger-picked guitars or a sea shanty reminiscent vocal set against an eerily minimalist composition. Spend enough time with Tresor and the narrative encompasses the conflicts of being, the desires and joys against the grinds and injustices. The version of ourselves we have to push forward in order to be, even if we feel conflicted about what that persona is.

Album closer ‘Porth Ia’ – the Cornish for St Ives, where the album was written – brings us back to the warmth the album was introduced on, the vibrance of bouncing organs, her vocals soft rather than reaching or direct or forceful, all fading out on a church bell. It is many aspects of what she has already shared in a more muted form. As a final thought with a clear reference to where we’ve been, it’s tempting to conclude that this calm space is the ideal. It would be projecting to say it’s Gwenno’s ideal. But any space that allows for the disparate parts of ourselves, our different narratives, languages, boundaries and emotions to be contained in one place, does sound ideal.