In a parallel universe, one in which the sun constantly shines and unicorns graze on the greenest of grass, The Pipettes are held up as one of our greatest pop groups. In this rather bleaker and more foreboding universe of course, the polka-dot clad trio are seen as nothing more as a footnote in pop history, who shone brightly with excellent singles like Pull Shapes and Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me, before succumbing to more line-up changes than the Sugababes and eventually embarking on that most modern of ways to call it a day, the ‘permanent hiatus’.
One fortunate by-product of The Pipettes’ demise though, has been seeing what comes next. Ex-Pipette Rose Elinor Dougall released her own quietly excellent solo album five years ago and is also firmly part of Mark Ronson‘s collective, and now Gwenno Saunders – who was already a respected Welsh language artist before she joined The Pipettes – has returned to her roots, releasing a concept album based on a sci-fi novel and sung almost entirely in Welsh. Just for good measure, the parts that aren’t in Welsh are sung in Cornish.
It’s hard to imagine a bigger 180 degree turnaround from The Pipettes’ bright, shiny day-glo pop, and it’s true to say that nobody will constructing synchronized dance routines to anything on Y Dydd Olaf. However, those who do get to hear it (for, let’s face it, this isn’t exactly a hot commercial sell) will discover something pretty special: big, bright and strangely uplifting, even if, after checking your English-speaking privilege in at the door, you have no idea what Saunders is singing about.
After all, singing in their native language never did Super Furry Animals or Gorkys Zygotic Mynci any harm, and its the former’s Mwng album that’s often brought to mind when listening to Gwenno. Not just because of the Welsh lyrics, but also due to the endlessly inventive ways that the melodies are delivered – there’s a strangely subversive edge to Y Dydd Olaf, where even a seemingly accessible and commercial track like the opener Chwyldro has an oddly portentous air to it. It’s there too in Calon Periant, which manages to be both queasy and disorientating while also boasting a lovely, sugar-sweet chorus.
Y Dydd Olaf’s songs are based on Owain Owain’s mid-’70s novel of the same name in which an army of robots enslave the human population, and both the book and album draw on topics such as patriarchy (the hypnotic, and probably pretty obvious even to a non-Welsh speaker, Patriarchaeth) and the importance of protecting minority languages in an ever more globalised world (one of the album’s standouts, Fratolish Hiang Perpeshki which brings to mind some of the glorious urgency of M83).
Despite the heavy topics, Gwenno brings a lightness of touch to everything on the album – her vocals are both light and breezy, and sometimes sound full of wonder, as if she can’t wait to explore this weird dysoptian future that she’s singing about. At times, such as on the excellent Stwff, there’s a gorgeous sense of melancholy conjured up by her voice, helped by the minor piano keys and a sense of blissed-out wooziness that could have come straight from a Stereolab album.
The final track, Amser, is the only track sung in Cornish – again, unless you’re a native speaker, it’s hard to work out what’s being sung about, but a bit of research reveals the lyrics to be a poem written by Gwenno’s father about the passing of time and the need to protect different cultures and languages. It’s a poignant ending to an album that deserves to find a far wider audience than it will probably end up reaching.