It’s sad, really, when experimentation and reinvention go this wrong.
Let’s talk about reinvention for a moment, shall we? Music has a particularly short shelf life. There’s so damn much of it being tossed into the world on the daily that irrelevance lurks one duplicated melody away. As such, a constant progression or a shift in focus is necessary. Music worth its proverbial salt is never static. It changes. It’s malleable. That takes courage. Daring. Cajones, if you will. Gwenno Saunders’ first solo LP after her time spent with the Pipettes certainly has the guts for reinvention–but nothing else.
The Pipettes was a fantastic modern adaptation of the multilayered vocal stylings of dancehall girl groups from the ‘60s. Their two albums are absolute delights. Gwenno, the primary focus of the group, has pulled a full 180 with Y Dydd Olaf. Not only has she traded upbeat pop for tripped-out electronic dreamscapes, she sings the entire record in Welsh. Such a departure is exciting, right? Strictly reading from the press release, this thing should be experimentation in its truest form. It should be provocative. It should be sheer goddamn artistry, man.
Then, you listen to it.
The opening track, “Chwyldro,” which translates to “Revolution,” is fair enough. A slow groove with ethereal, weird noise. Gwenno singing of, you guessed it, revolution. It’s the sort of song that would work nicely if the album went anywhere else. Out of context it’s fine, but it loses what little value it holds by serving as an introduction to nothing more than a dull slog through an overwrought 45 minutes that plays out like a traffic jam. Moody, somber and boring, the album is a pin with which to pop a child’s mylar happy birthday balloon, or a seagull hell-bent on wrecking your perfect hair day. By the time one of the only salvageable tracks, “Stwff” (“Stuff”), comes along, the press release excitement is so far gone you feel stupid for ever having gotten jazzed up.
Let it be known that Gwenno did succeed in one aspect of this album. Lyrically she stretched her limits by discussing revolution, sexism, technological dependence, art, existence and cultural diversity. She was inspired by everything from dystopian novels to violent histories of failed attempts at change. Considering she spent most of her time in the Pipettes singing about fun things, this is a really nice change. Unfortunately, the lyrics are in Welsh. Without a translation, which most listeners would be without, the powerful concepts she sheds light on are lost. The artistic choice in making something very personal renders the album almost completely inaccessible. If only we could understand the mood she was attempting to set with the lyrics, perhaps the music would have made more sense.
Look, if one of your favorite artists breaks away from their signature sound, you should hope they challenge themselves, make something unrecognizable. Otherwise it’s cheap marketing, false advertising, whatever. Gwenno did what every good artist is supposed to when branching out. She just didn’t do it well. Singing in Welsh is brave, but it cuts out a vast majority of the listening audience. The musical oddities fail because they’re grating and annoying. The trippiness loses its vibe because it’s smoky without the smell of funk. And Gwenno’s voice loses its beauty because it’s lost a canyon’s worth of echoing reverb.
It’s sad, really, when experimentation and reinvention go this wrong. That’s the risk. Sometimes ambition rears back and slaps the shit out of the ambitious. It’s a shame, sure. But it’s also part of what it is to be a musician, an artist of any kind. Gwenno should be commended for her efforts here. Unfortunately, all that effort didn’t payoff. Not even a little bit.