Gwenno Saunders released her debut album Y Dydd Olaf in 2014, it was startling to hear how different it was to her work with her former band The Pipettes. In place of singalong choruses and polka dot fashion were a collection of dreamy, woozy synth pieces, entirely sung in Welsh and, on the closing track, Cornish. It was a hauntingly beautiful record that raised questions of national and regional identity and ended up winning the Welsh Music Prize.
For the follow-up, Saunders has turned to her second language. Although she was born in Wales, Saunders is also fluent in Cornish – a language declared extinct by the UN in 2009 (and then regraded to ‘critically endangered’ a year later), and now spoken by an estimated 1000 people. So Le Kov is one of the few albums you’ll hear with entirely Cornish lyrics, but as with Y Dydd Olaf though, there’s no need to feel alienated by the unfamiliar words: these songs cast their own magical spell without the need for a translation sheet (which is, nevertheless, handily provided).
The gorgeous Hi a Skoellyas Liv a Dhagrow sets the tone, with its swirling strings and playful nod to the Aphex Twin track of the same name – with Saunders hushed, whispery vocals, it’s easy to imagine this as some kind of soundtrack for an imaginary art film. There’s also straight-up catchy pop in Tir Ha Mor which has a propulsive energy built on a sparkling piano line, while the brilliant Daromres yín Howl has a disorientating psych-rock feel, helped in no small part by an appearance by Super Furry Animals‘ Gruff Rhys on guest vocals.
Although it’s tempting to just wallow in Gwenno’s cinematic soundscapes, there are several pertinent political points contained in many of her songs. Herdhya directly translates as ‘Pushing’ and talks of social isolation post-Brexit, and feeling disconnected from your neighbours – a poignant sentiment given the strong pro-leave vote in the 2016 referendum. Hunros (which means ‘dream’ in Cornish) meanwhile shimmers with a sadness and melancholy thatís impossible to link to anything but a sense of loss of culture, language and identity.
Yet there’s a lightness of touch about Le Kov too which stops things from ever becoming too mournful. The standout Eus Keus? sees Gwenno adopt spoken word for the verses, before bursting into life for the chorus, which actually means ‘is there cheese, is there enough cheese?’. There’s something inherently delightful about a pop song sung in an endangered language all about the joy of dairy products, and it’s this which lends Le Kov much of its charm.
As with Y Dydd Olaf, there will probably be limited interest in Le Kov – as laudable as an entire album sung in Cornish is, there’s sadly not much of an audience for it. Yet Gwenno is doing important work here, and for those willing to open their minds and step into the mythical land of Le Kov will find that they may not want to leave.