Richard Dawson, the black-humoured bard of Newcastle, returns to release his sixth solo album 2020.
Where its critically-acclaimed predecessor Peasant (2017) gave a voice to the citizens of the ancient early medieval northern kingdom of Bryneich via a set of narratives as bawdy as Chaucer and as epic and bloody as Beowulf, 2020 is an utterly contemporary state-of-the-nation study, that uncovers an equally tumultuous and even bleaker time. Here is an island country in a state of flux; a society on the edge of mental meltdown. This is England today.
As with the very best social realism, Dawson introduces us to grand themes through small lives. His are portraits of human beings struggling with recognisable (and dare we say it, relatable) concerns, conflicts and desires, each reminding us that tragedy and gallows humour are not mutually exclusive, and that the magical can sit next to the mundane. Lyrically it is by far Dawson’s hardest-hitting and unflinchingly honest album to date. It is his poetic masterwork.
“I was keen to avoid making another album set in the past so soon,” explains Richard. “Peasant is an album that sounds like it’s covered in dry mud and twig scratches, but I had the feeling that this record needs to be incredibly direct, so that the songs are happening now. I actually found it incredibly challenging writing in this setting; I think any poetic tricks, devices and grandiose sentiments I might have previously used got scrubbed away in the face of what the characters in these songs are trying to say. People’s thoughts are messy, awkward, conflicting. So whereas with Peasant there was much space for poetry, experimentation and wordplay, here it felt more appropriate to be straight and unvarnished.”
Having released the album Mogic with his band Hen Ogledd (‘the Old North’) in 2018, Dawson decamped to Blank Studio, Newcastle with Sam Grant of Pigs, Pigs, Pigs and recorded all the instrumentation for 2020 himself. Nuanced and challenging, the ten songs also conversely feature Dawson’s most melodic moments yet. Many of his musical trademarks – unexpected time signatures, strange flourishes and welcome digressions, sounds simultaneously harsh and honeyed, sensitive and abrasive – are in place, but more than ever such disparate components are corralled to create a highly focused collection that offers a thoroughly dire diagnosis of the UK, yet is shot through with flecks of hope.
Within, we find disgruntled civil servants dreaming of better days, anxiety-addled joggers listlessly searching Zoopla for houses they cannot afford in their spare time, amateur footballers who think they’re Lionel Messi and beleaguered pub landlords battling rising floodwaters. Along the way we also encounter retired counsellors, Kurdish neighbours, freelance graphic designers and fat-headed butchers moaning about “the influx of immigrants and benefit scroungers”.
Dawson also presents a world littered with the ephemera of 21st century existence: bags for life, beta blockers, black puddings, Cash Converters, cancelled disability allowances, Classic FM, emojis, vape shops, toothache, Match of the Day, hedgehogs and mobile phones vibrating in the pre-dawn hours. This litany of clutter creates a musical diorama that is resolutely rooted in the strange and often nightmarish world of today. “In the past, objects have appeared in songs like these great big burning symbols on the landscape of the story,” he elaborates. “But this album sees a tumble of plastic objects, neon signs, drinks cans, smashed bottles, footballs and so on because that’s what it feels like stepping out of your front door. Advertising uses the language of magic to shape our minds and it’s just everywhere – a torrent of talismans. We have such an obsession with acquisition that objects become our lives, as important as experience. We’re still emotional, thinking, feeling animals, but are becoming defined by logos, websites, social media, sports results, fashion and TV. The objects themselves then have become the experience, which I think is unhealthy.”
Place is particularly important too: through the prism of his beloved Newcastle and the north-east of England, and this time further south into Yorkshire and beyond, Dawson builds an entire world. This is the universal disguised as the regional. “Questions of identity, place, history and tradition are interesting,” says Richard, of the climate of the songs’ creation. “The overwhelming atmosphere of anxiety can be felt all across the island, by people of all political persuasions. No-one seems happy – how can this be? There’s a nervousness and fear over a perceived loss of identity, yet people seem so divorced from their own traditions. Even in disagreement I could maybe understand people hating the idea of losing their ‘Englishness’…if I actually believed they knew what it was.”
Dawson’s lyrics find magic and meaning in the minutiae of simple everyday life, each lyrical signifier adding to a unique perception that is one short step removed from reality – perhaps as a tactic to process and survive it – and as such he should be recognised as a visionary. If nothing else, 2020 confirms him as one of the most astute and original lyricists in music today. How important is humour in navigating an anxious modern world? “The intention is never to be humorous, only respectful of the characters,” he explains. “It’s more about not shying away from something you wouldn’t usually sing because it’s deemed comical-sounding. I think hearing ‘Lionel Messi’ or ‘espresso machine’ sung by a man makes people laugh because it’s…well, it’s ridiculous. But the way people think and talk is often funny, when unfiltered. We don’t think in a refined way; we think like a puddle of muddy water spreading on the kitchen floor.”
For all the surface ribald humour however, any deep exploration into the fried psyche of a country is bound to take its toll. “I certainly think it’s the saddest record I’ve written,” adds Richard. “I found it too much making it actually. I was really overwhelmed by it.”
Then there is the music itself. 2020 sees Dawson meld his most melodic moments with flashes of choral dissonance, nerve-shredding crescendos, heartfelt laments and a deceptive finger-picking style that might best be described as ‘Django Beefheart’. His voice is a pliable instrument throughout, moving between weathered back bar-room sage, angelic falsetto and strident, rabble-rousing hellion chief choir boy of the underworld. Dawson also admits to a new-found fascination with pure pop music and the technology behind it, citing everyone form Kate Bush to Frank Ocean as particular pioneers.
Opener ‘Civil Servant’ is a disorientating, Waltzer-ride of a sound about the daily drudgery of a despised job (“Bus fulls of meat / Slumped in our seats”). Here, a clanging riff gives way to folk rock waltzes and the type of unspoken violent fantasies we all secretly harbour before reaching a glorious climactic protestation of “Refuse! Refuse!” Underpinned by synths and vocoders ‘Jogging’ is a majestic pop song superficially about the benefits of exercise on the befuddled mind but masks a deeper narrative which explores Middle England. “I was interested in writing the perspectives of people whose lives might exist close to one another but they’re coming from different backgrounds and have different outlooks,” Richard says. “The idea of ‘class’ is so clouded now, and we tend to associate affluence with money, but actually the real affluence is one of ideas and the belief that you have a right to do something with your life.”
In writing about Dawson past reviewers have reached for such disparate comparisons as Sun-Ra, Vic Reeves, The Incredible String Band, avant-garde guitar pioneer Derek Bailey, Les Dawson, Robert Wyatt and Hieronymus Bosch, while namechecking drone, prog rock, child ballads, folk and the Sufi devotional music qawwali. All are valid but few truly come close. Across a rapidly-expanding body of work, Richard Dawson simply lets the sounds arrive of their own accord and his characters stalk the listener’s imagination. And like the hapless wandering community of 2012’s macabre-folk of ‘Ghost Of A Tree’, the mischief-making schoolboys who descend into Dante’s circle of hell in 2014’s sixteen-minute epic ‘The Vile Stuff’, or the fearful conscript of Peasant’s ‘Soldier’, once glimpsed they are rarely forgotten.
Dawson is a singular voice, part savant-genius, part court jester; a songwriter whose subjects and characters are often drawn from the local, the historical and the colloquial, yet have a timelessness to them, his music echoing with voices past, present and future. There is a continuity. Here is life, in all its strange and wonderful ways.