Gary Raymond reviews the new (and now Mercury Prize-shortlisted) album, Tresor by Gwenno.
What does it take nowadays for a fringe artist to break through to the mainstream consciousness? Diligent hard work? Important. Dedication to an artistic vision? Good for the brand, maybe. An angle? Helps with the column inches. A Mercury Prize nomination? Can’t do any harm. Well, in actual fact, for many non-mainstream artists nowadays, a Mercury Prize shortlisting is a peak, a culmination of all the important bits that have come before: hard work, dedication to a vision, and a brand that catches the eye. Gwenno Saunders can now lay claim to that trajectory. Since her debut solo album, Y Dydd Olaf, in 2015, she has proved herself a serious, single-minded artist who has toiled at the coalface of the electronic fringes (the hard work) evolving from a conventional songwriter basking in the synth sunlight to a searching ambient artist (the dedication to vision) all the while delivering lyrics in Welsh and Cornish (the angle). And now Tresor is up for the big prize, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t richly deserved.
Tresor itself is Gwenno’s most interesting and lingering record, and it takes a few listens before you can confidently attest that, yes, it’s also her most satisfying. If the first half feels like a hangover of material from 2018’s Le Kov, it is only, at least, in scope and delivery. There is, under the surface, something wholly new waiting to burst out. Le Kov, I felt, was caught between two worlds – that of synth pop and something more reflective and caustic. Tresor is the headpoint of that artistic journey.
That first half, the bit that doesn’t immediately grab, is the sound not of an artist adjusting, but of an admirer catching up. “Anima” and the title track meander, and it’s difficult to grasp if the journey is as important as the destination, or vice versa. It is half an album that at times feels black with intensity, but short on soul, like some cosmic phenomenon. Anybody who has seen Gwenno live will know intensity – particularly a political intensity – is a vital part of her artistic impetus. But then something kicks in, and I’m all caught up. And that something is “Ardamm”, a gritty seven-minute juggernaut that does its work somewhere between Harmonia and The Fall. The soundscapes of Tresor become increasingly rich as the album progresses, and the Nico-does-electric sensibility encountered in the first stages are soon usurped first by a Bowie-in-Berlin fascination with noodles and doodles, and then by a surprising but utterly correct diversion into electro-folk. And this acts as a reminder, if one were needed, that Gwenno’s Welsh/Cornish “angle” might be good for some column inches, but it is also utterly authentic and her dedication to the richness and mysticism of Celtic languages is an instrumentation in itself. The lyrics are often deft, delivered in a flat, grave tone. Gwenno’s vocal is not the proclamations of the frontwoman, but are the backbone, or the mountain ridges, of this fascinating landscape. As Tresor goes on, it is a joy to hear the sounds of Black Box Recorder come up against Amon Düül II, and the winning languorous intonations of a June Tabor propped up by the condensed rhythms of a student of 70s Krautrock.
When all is said and done, Tresor is a folk record, dependent on those straight and true melodies that work to bring ancient gems to the surface. If you’d told me this record was released into obscurity in 1972 and was now awaiting reappraisal and cult status, I could have easily believed you. If it does feel a little uneven, it represents the peak and troughs of a journey – exactly how an album should be conceived, created, and delivered. There are moments of languid reflection, moments of propulsion, moments of sumptuous instrumentation, synthesised surprises and percussive passages rendered to perfection. There are no bangers on Tresor, and the talent for hooks heard on Y Dydd Olaf (and to a lesser extent on Le Kov) is now all but side-lined for something more reflective and skeletal and meaningful. “Porth Ia” is a wonderful closer, a sauntering street vibe that plays us out with the calming ambience of a village Sunday. There is something tangibly old and new about Tresor, something reassuring but also startling about the ground it covers. Even at this early stage of its public life, it’s an album that feels like it will grow deeper than its predecessors. It is, in the end, one of those quiet classics you return to, that you recommend, that you adore.
Tresor by Gwenno is available now in all the usual places.