Gwyneth Glyn – Tro
bendigedig – 29 September 2017
The Welsh language is not always easily digested by anglophones. Full of mutating consonants, tongue-twisting clicks and trills and that tricksy double-L sound (the voiceless alveolar lateral fricative, to give it its proper name), it is a language of ambivalence, one that can sound simultaneously guttural and melodious. This ambivalence is most noticeable in Welsh-language song, which has an uncanny and possibly unique ability to be melancholic, passionate, thoughtful and elated all at once.
This is a quality that Gwyneth Glyn’s new album, Tro, has in abundance. Ambivalence and mystery are there in the title before you even begin listening to the songs. ‘Tro’ is the Welsh for ‘turn’. Even in English, the word has multiple layers of meaning, but in Welsh, it carries an even greater and more varied semantic freight: it can mean the warp in a piece of timber, an encircling, a coil of rope, a ringlet of hair, an orbit, and other things besides. The idea of the inexorable turning of the seasons, for example, is explored in the very first song, Tanau. From the first notes, we are caught up in Glyn’s earthy, ethereal world, a world that extends far beyond the borders of her native Wales. The first thing that strikes us is the twang of a bansitar – provided by Rowan Rheingans of Lady Maisery and The Rheingans Sisters – and then the immersive, liquid tones of Glyn’s voice. She has been compared to Joni Mitchell, and on this evidence that is not an exaggeration. There is also something of Vashti Bunyan in the deceptive simplicity of her words and melodies, while the eastern musical backing recalls some of Pentangle’s more experimental moments.
Tanau, like most but not all of the songs on Tro, was composed and is sung by Glyn in Welsh. Another is Can Y Cwn (literally ‘Song of the Dogs’), with a wild and lonely violin providing a counterpoint to its elliptical lyrics and economical guitar. It is round about here that, reading the English translations of Glyn’s words, you start to realise just how strong a writer she really is, just how much she can say in a limited amount of time. It is no surprise to learn that she is an accomplished poet: she has an enviable ability to convey multiple ideas in a single stream of words. Here, she is singing about visceral experience – sleeplessness, the sounds of the night – but after a while, you realise that she is also exploring the abstract ideas of love and longing, and the grey, dawn-lit area in between, where abstract and visceral merge in physical human love.
Cwlwm (meaning ‘Knot’) cleverly examines that same idea of physical communion through an actual musical collaboration (the song was co-written, in a neat tripartite form, by Glyn and Tym Morys). The track also features the delicate, fluttering playing of Senegalese kora virtuoso Seckou Keita.
Ffair is the first of the album’s scattering of traditional tracks, though to describe it as non-original does Glyn’s creativity a disservice – it is a beautiful, lyrical translation of the English-language standard She Moves Through The Fair, set against a softly droning backdrop of shruti and gentle drums. It is followed by Dig Me A Hole, the first of only three songs in English, and not by coincidence the most defiantly unambiguous. It features an atmospheric, cyclical coda in which Glyn’s voice is joined by Rheingans’, and the song steeples into a crescendo of handclaps and strings.
The choice of supporting musicians on Tro is inspired. Employing the services of Seckou Keita is an impressive coup, while Rowan Rheingans, in particular, is quietly making a name for herself as one of the most sought-after names in the folk world. Rheingans provides banjo on Bratach Shi which along with producer and multi-instrumentalist Dylan Fowler’s haunting lap steel gives the piece a pleasingly timeless, placeless feel that chimes with the song’s subject matter, dealing as it does with a tale of the supernatural transposed onto a personal, contemporary situation. Rheingans’ banjo also appears on Y Gnawas (The Bitch), Glyn’s startling reimagining of Karen Dalton’s setting of Katie Cruel, and on Caerdyni, an original composition filled with ancient longing for a much-loved place.
Caerdyni exemplifies that particularly Welsh phenomenon, hiraeth: a kind of melancholic yearning for a specific time or place. And on repeated listens, the notion of hiraeth begins to appear all over the album, nowhere more explicitly than on Os Na Wela’i Di, on which Glyn applies the concept to a person, rather than a place. The result is an emotionally honest, gentle and profoundly moving celebration of a life.
On Far Ago, Glyn takes a Joni Mitchell quote and weaves a whole, wise song out of it, and fittingly it is the most Mitchell-like moment on the album, while the final English-language song, What’s A Girl To Do, owes more to Anne Briggs, and in particular Living By The Water, a song which seems almost like a sister to this one, in terms of melody.
Dan Dy Draed (Under Your Feet) takes as its starting point the W.B. Yeats line from The Cloths Of Heaven: ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’, and uses it to examine the totality of love, and in the album’s final, and most adventurous, song, Trafaeliais/Kide-Magni, she braids a part-spoken, part-sung Welsh incantation around Keita’s beautiful kora as drummer Mark O’Connor provides free, modernistic washes in the background. Each layer of the song – Keita’s quivering melodies, Glyn’s singing, even the rhythm section – could conceivably stand alone, but taken together they create a stunning, complex pattern, and an ambitious statement with which to conclude a remarkable collection of songs. Tro is less an album and more a journey: to the quiet, longed-for corners of Wales, but also across the world, taking in West Africa and the Asian subcontinent. And it is an inward journey, an exploration of love and its many meanings and guises. As a whole, it is a poetic and deeply moving experience.
Photo Credit: Andy Morgan