© Claire Marie Bailey.
At the beginning of July, the Gallo-Cornouallaise Gwenno released her third album Treasure. An album sung in an almost extinct language, Cornish, which transports us to a mystical universe between folk and folklore. Just for that she deserves to win the prestigious Mercury Prize for best album of the year to which she is nominated.
In the collective imagination, progress is synonymous with technological development, it means making everyday life easier by inventing machines. Yet in this race for progress, know-how and old techniques have been lost. Would we be able to reproduce today with so many details, the sinuous draperies of Greco-Roman statues? And then there are the imperialist and capitalist machines which, following an obscurantist vision of progress, crush peoples deemed different, backward or underdeveloped. Thus cultures, dialects have been erased and continue to be so today.
In Cornwall, in the south of the United Kingdom, around the year 600, a Celtic language called Cornish developed. It was transmitted for 1000 years, before the English forced the local people to stop practicing it. According to legend, the last person to speak it fluently was Dolly Pentreath, a fishmonger, who died in 1777. In the 20th century, some tried to give it a second life. This attempt led us to Gwenno and the masterpiece that is her third album. Treasure.
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Raised by a Welsh activist mother – who notably sang in a choir soberly called “the red choir of Cardiff” – and by a Cornish poet father, Gwenno Mererid Saunders brings Celtic culture to life album after album. At the beginning of July, she was going out Treasure, a magnificent opus sung entirely in Cornish with the exception of a title in Welsh: “NYCAW”, acronym for “Nest yw Cymru ar Werth”. Translate “Wales is not for sale”. Dogs are not cats…
After talking about technological alienation in Y Dydd Olafof the idea of homeland in The Kovthe musician, shares her introspection in Treasure. She tackles a somewhat taboo subject in our society: motherhood. She talks about the exploration of desire, the reconquest of bodies and the quest for identity when one dedicates oneself to another individual, one’s child. The house and the self. Finally, this is for those who are lucky enough to understand Cornish. For us simple laymen, we have the impression of making an inner journey to another era. A time when we knew how to make all kinds of precise ornaments in wood or bronze by hand and where it was not uncommon to see a fairy, a troll, or any magical creature behind a rock.
Because with Treasure, Gwenno invites us, through her pop, folk psychedelic, sometimes mystical peregrinations, into a world of legends. It’s impossible not to think of Kate Bush and the world of “Wuthering Heights” — especially when in most of her clips and visuals, Gwenno sports a bright red outfit. Already, the album begins like a sixties horror play with the title “An Stevel Nowydh”. The keyboards resound before giving way to the melody of an ancient tale. In TreasureGwenno has fun with superstitions, which reminds us of her Welsh compatriot, Cate Le Bon, in particular on the titles “Anima” and “Tresor”.
And then alongside those ballads are the basses and guitars of “NYCAW”, which can evoke the disturbing “A Forest” by The Cure and the oppressive “Ardamm”, reminiscent of the productions UK/Irish post-punk revival the most recent of Dry Cleaning or Sinead O Brien. In the middle of all this there is the short and experimental “Men an Toll”, which announces the atmosphere much more background which closes the album, “Keltek”, “Tonnow” and “Porth la” — whose final steeple sounds transport us to a small Cornish village. It is as if Treasure was ultimately only a dream, a chimera. A bit like those two years spent locked up.
Because Gwenno started writing this album in Ives, Cornwall, just before the confinement broke out. She finished it at her home in Cardiff with her co-producer and musical collaborator, Rhys Edwards, during the pandemic. It is a work that echoes isolation, which has become a universal experience.
No wonder that with such compositions that bring out what is deepest in us, Gwenno is nominated for the prestigious British Mercury Price, for the best album of the year. We hope — we keep our fingers crossed — that this one wins!
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