In 2020 I made the debut album from Gemma Cullingford, “Let Me Speak”, my album of the year. There were a lot of reasons for that, not all of them connected, at least directly, to Cullingford, or the music. I saw “Let Me Speak” as a means by which I could reconnect with things that were important to me, that defined so much of the music that I loved, things that had been lost thanks to the cultural impact in the nineties of trad/lad rock. When kids like me talked about “indie” in the eighties, and the nineties, it didn’t have anything to do with Stone Island, football, Slade, “birds'', and cocaine. Indie used to be about erudition, emotional honesty, low art striking out for high art, eccentricity, vulnerability, wit, pretension, and intelligence. There was precious little of that in any of the “indie” bands I heard people braying about on social media.
“Let Me Speak” was an indie album.
An indie album of the sort that the guitar wankers were incapable of making, or appreciating.
Here we are twelve months later and, again, I am putting Cullingford at the top of the pops. Her second album, “Tongue Tied”, was a more confident, more strident, bigger, and bolder, set of songs. In her own words Cullingford states, “If “Let Me Speak” was me peeking out from my front door, wondering if I was ready, and brave enough, to face the world again after lockdown, “Tongue Tied” is me confidently walking down the street and saying hello to everyone I meet. That’s not a metaphor, it’s literally what has happened. I’m more confident and less introverted that I was when I wrote and released “Let Me Speak”.
The album opens with “Accessory”, a brave attempt to understand the perceptions that others may have of us. “Since my teens” Gemma says “I’ve been told by people that I’m paranoid. I don't think I am - most people can’t be trusted - but I thought I would write the lyrics from my perceived perspective of what people might be thinking about me, drawing on multiple experiences, and my interpretation of other’s words and actions”.
The title track, “Tongue Tied”, is about fear and a lack of belief in oneself. A hymn to low self-esteem? “It’s about the fear of talking to, or in front of, people that send you in a tizz, Maybe because you’re attracted to them, or admire them, or maybe because they intimidate you. For me, I know my mind often goes blank, and I rarely get to say what I mean, or say the words in the right order in front of most people. But get me talking on paper, or in my own head, and I don’t know when to shut up!” Sometimes all you really want, or need from a song, is that it lifts your spirits, that it is something you can dance to. “Bass Face” is my attempt to write an up-tempo, punchy, tune. I think I was successful. I tried the same thing with “Chronicle of Sound”. But with “Holding Dreams” I was intrigued by the idea of what might have happened should someone have stayed with a failed relationship. Sometimes you only remember the good things, sometimes only the bad times, and I guess this is about looking back at the good times and wondering about what could have been.”
My wife suffers from night terrors. The real terror is felt by me, when she sits bolt upright, in the middle of the night, staring into the darkness, tears streaming down her cheeks, babbling, almost incoherently, about something she has forgotten to do, and which will bring terrible consequences. There is nothing for me to do except whisper comforting words, encourage her to lie down, and wait for the fear to pass. The mood of those moments is captured, in very different ways, by “Mechanical” and “New Day”. “With “Mechanical”, I wanted to write something that was dark and menacing. “New Day” is about the fear that can grip you in the middle of the night, and then the optimism and relief that a new day can bring. It was inspired by my partner’s experiences of his daughter’s night terrors, and the hopelessness he felt at those moments.” explains Gemma.
One of the most intimate, and revealing songs on the album is “No Fail”. “2018 and 2019 were very turbulent years for me, I went through the breakdown of relationships, started a new relationship, moved house twice, there was illness in my family, toxic friendships revealed themselves, and a huge amount of touring, all left me shattered and defeated by February 2020. I remember thinking that I wanted to be on a desert island, to hide away. Looking back I had a lot to process. Then lockdown happened, and I got my desert island in a way. I had a new home, a sanctuary, my own shangri la. I was writing songs that gave me the space I needed to process things. “No Fail” is about all of that. I was able to take a deep breath, to analyse where I was, and to remind myself that life was good. No fail!”
The penultimate track on the album, “Red Room”, is an electronic, glam pop, stomp. It could have been the heart of a musical version of Edgar Wright’s “Last Night In Soho”. Gemma says “It’s a homage to Bolan and the glam dudes of the 1970’s. It’s a story about “Baby”, who moves to a new town and meets lots of characters. Think seedy soho nights in the seventies.” That same darkness is found on the album's concluding track, “Daisy”. “Really I just wanted to write an electro song in a 3/4 time signature, and “Daisy” has always struck me as quite a dark song, which happened to fit over the top. I didn’t realise quite how dark it would sound."
Electronica, pop, glam, emotional reveals, trauma, discovery, 80s synths, seventies beats…I don’t know what else you are looking for from an album, but I do know that, for me, nothing else came close to matching “Tongue Tied” in 2022.
Album of the year.