Richard Dawson - 2020

The Quietus

2020 is the sixth album from the much lauded, eccentric songwriter. Strangely, I feel I can introduce the nature of Dawson by relating a brief text conversation I had with my father a couple of weeks ago. He texted me (he never texts me) to say simply that had I heard of Richard Dawson, and was he a genius? I replied that I had, and he might be.

He then texted back this illuminating sentence, “I thought so, but I couldn’t tell.”

This is genuinely useful in getting to grips with Dawson. He’s not that easy to pin down, and it’s sometimes hard to think of his output as entertaining, but rather access to an inner monologue that we probably shouldn’t have. Sometimes I feel like he’s a sort of ultra-violent Les Dawson. He’s hugely witty, but dark as fuck. His lyricism is, frankly, wonderful. He deals explicitly in the rich vein of pathos that comes lurking always in the everyday.

Just listen to ‘Fresher’s Ball’ for instant access to his world. These narratives are woven from detail, he zooms in on the minutiae of things in a way that seems to extract the greatest emotional impact. Those of you who have already heard the fantastic ‘Jogging’ from this record will be familiar with the oh-so familiar gut punch of “one of the girls who works on the check-out tuts under her breath and it destroys me for a week.” Pretty much all of the writing is this good.

Dawson writes from the kitchen sink so-to-speak. All the stories seem to evolve from utterly mundane origins, people in vape shops, civil servants and such. But, of course, this is the very crux of our lives. This is us. Hence the massive and palpable pathos in evidence here. Everything is heartbreaking, violent, defeated, and yet majestic. I’m aware as I write this of the embarrassing grandness of the language I’m using. But other words don’t seem to do it justice. He’s an astonishingly good writer. I am awed and envious.

There’s a sort of but here though. It’s not enough to talk about Dawson as a wordsmith. We should not leave behind nor relegate his musical invention. He has always used distorted timbres and unusual chord progressions, and his melody writing is constantly surprising with sudden disjunct shifts of intervals that we rarely get enough of in popular music.

These elements remain, but he’s started to write pop songs. Singable, hooky pop songs, with choruses. Having been a big fan of the relentless, abrasive darkness of earlier records, the bright celebration of the arrangements here were a little surprising. Finding myself hallway through ‘Two Halves’, I found myself realising that it wasn’t a million miles from Belle and Sebastian. Harsher, weightier sure, but that same playful melodic work that you might find on The Boy with the Arab Strap. Be assured though, Dawson will swiftly knock all that down with a sudden jolting kick of chromatic carnage. And I am glad of it.

I love the way Dawson arranges music. It is often so deeply uncool and cheap. His synth sounds are often cartoonish in the extreme. Next to his guitar work though, the effect of this is largely brutally uncanny rather than funny or twee. ‘Heart Emoji’ walks this line very well indeed. Essentially, his music achieves a glorious congruence with his writing. The small, the ineffective and the whimsical married to make the dense, the savage and the ruined. He’s kind of like one of those Russian, or post-Soviet satirists. Bulgakov or Kerkov or someone like that maybe. It seems there’s really no other way for him to articulate himself, Dawson’s songs present an ego that is utterly fragile, on the verge of total collapse at the smallest of triggers, but is paradoxically compelled to make this work, make it public and not give a damn about its stylistic relevance to any sense of trend.

It’s difficult to think of him as a folk singer in some ways. But as an articulation of common themes, he’s maybe the only really real one we have. More valuable and vital than a million fucking Bellowheads or their tedious ilk. He just doesn’t really sound like folk. And nor should he. There’s as much hair metal dusted through this (the ahhs in ‘Black Triangle’!) as there is introspective acoustic narrative. There are more major keys, more recognisable guitar technique tropes, but always these are undone, knocked over and corroded by the bubbling urgency of Dawson’s mind. His drawing from devotional music and repetitious musical forms is writ large over these sprawling tracks, interwoven with pleasing and charming riffs.

It would be a stretch to say that this album is easy going, but it’s probably the most accessible of his records. It’s exciting to find such an artist trying out more populist forms.

This is a magnificent retention of quality and development from pop music’s Francis Bacon. It’s impossible not to find your own neurosis within the weave of these songs. It’s horrifying and gorgeous, and you’ll likely not hear a more singular or, indeed, better record this year. Is he a genius? Of sorts, probably. I can’t tell, and what does it matter?

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Thu Oct 10 08:36:33 GMT 2019

Pitchfork 78

On his dense but meticulously rendered new album, the British folk singer uses grander pop arrangements to wade into the barbarism of modern life.

Thu Oct 17 05:00:00 GMT 2019

Tiny Mix Tapes 70

Richard Dawson

[Domino; 2019]

Rating: 3.5/5

One of the tendencies that artists most frequently regress to when “authoring” grand narratives is the overemphasis on the individual or group of individuals — i.e., protagonist(s) — who, following the customary narrative plot structure, play a role in the resolution of the main challenge that guides the narrative to its climax.

In early human history, myths gave us exalted protagonists: hero-gods whose idealized human forms were moralizing vessels onto which individuals might project themselves & onto whose struggles a community might map & rationalize the fluctuations & struggles of its own existence (e.g., famine, fertility). Ironically, the grand narratives of the Abrahamic religions that grew out of Mesopotamian paganism give us the purest examples of these exalted protagonists in the form of prophets — i.e., reconstructed hero-gods whose struggles represent or forecast the redemption of the human race.

Our way of telling stories over the past few millennia hasn’t changed too much, generally speaking. While the vicissitudes of modern communities’ existence are different, the coherence of these grand narratives remains attractive in times of chaos: “we” are the protagonists; “our” world is fundamentally a place of harmony; there are forces against “us” that threaten to disrupt the traditional order of things, & these antagonists have a name & a face that we can vanquish. By overcoming or succumbing to these forces — repairing & redeeming the world, respectively — these protagonists assure us that suffering has a cause, a reason, & a way out: even chaos has a function in a realm of order.

Of course, such stories aren’t just found in narrative art (e.g., fiction, film) & folklore; or rather, our definition of folklore in the contemporary must be wider. Namely, political discourses are their own type of folklore: narrative embroideries that weave disparate experiences into patterned realities, forming cohesive worldviews with their respective protagonists & antagonists. Hence the Cowboys & the Indians, NATO & the Warsaw Pact, the Israelis & the Palestinians, Trump & Hillary — Leave & Remain.

We’re often persuaded by these narratives’ explanatory power, even as we recognize that the truth is much more complex: Communities are heterogenous, experiences granular & often incoherent — even contradictory. Narratives are fabricated & constructed by community superiors (e.g., the clergy, government). Separate voices form an eclectic tapestry of meaning; complexity is cast aside when these voices are joined into a singular thread.

In reality, incoherence rather than coherence is what we experience daily. That’s why anthropology’s process of ethnography is the closest we can get to producing a sort of anti-narrative that may challenge explanatory & reductionist mythologies. In ethnography, nothing is schematized, as complexity is embraced & explored; nothing is extrapolated into the future, as there’s no resolution nor redemption — only entropy. Sure, ethnographic writings might seem to “go nowhere” for these very reasons, but that’s what makes them more faithful to reality:

We’re hardly going anywhere.

This is the spirit of Richard Dawson’s 2020, which pieces together a fragmented snapshot of quotidian life in Middle England via a series of discontinuous vignettes. Superficially, it might seem the complete opposite of 2017’s Peasant — set in the early medieval kingdom of Bryneich — yet 2020 in fact parallels its predecessor in its approach to storytelling, which is rather ethnographic in its refreshing rejection of coherence via a series of unrelated narrators whose stories offer no aphoristic takeaways.

Which is to say that 2020 doesn’t go anywhere — to its credit. With various political shifts underway simultaneously on the world stage, many politically-minded artists have cast aside nuance in the urgency to convey a direct, even mobilizing message to their audiences. It’s commendable at times, though we lose something in the process; grand narratives can obscure marginality, even when marginality is the protagonist. As Spivak laments, it’s why so often the subaltern can’t speak.

Dawson doesn’t obscure his political predispositions, which are quite understood on tracks such as “Civil Servant” & “Fulfilment Centre,” for example. But 2020 is far from a soapbox, despite being clearly inflected by contemporary anxieties. Dawson’s characters speak for themselves through their lived experience, jostling with each other in ways that emulate the fractured nature of our own communities, relationships, families, & careers, & bare the cognitive dissonance between our actions & the beliefs we purport to maintain.

Ironically, that’s what made Peasant so affecting: the immediacy of specificity is the key to universality. Because coherence is a fiction of the grand narrative, there’s no resolution to the chaos that is, ultimately, just the sum total of everyday life. As for us, we are not protagonists — just assemblies of experiences that make up the incoherent now.

Fri Dec 06 05:00:49 GMT 2019