Richard Dawson released what is perhaps his finest record yet in 2020 last year and we attempt to dissect its genius.
Whilst envisaging Richard Dawson hunched over history tomes burning the midnight oil in a fusty smelling library in search of his subjects that would eventually feature in 2017’s Peasant, similarly, there is a disturbing binary with his new album, 2020.
Unlike that fusty-smelling library, Dawson has seemingly spent time in the corner booth of Wetherspoons where the Newcastle native has been hard at work chiselling out characters over a lunch time pub special with a free pint of ale.
Given that the characters featuring across both albums are set in different centuries (Peasant being set in Bryneich – the kingdom which occupied the north east of England over 1000 years ago; 2020 being set in the now), you can’t help but feel the patchwork is woven from the same thread, further amplifying the current state of this nation.
Too disingenuous to pigeonhole as a Brexit album and in no way preachy enough to be defined as a protest album, with Dawson‘s spellbinding diatribes, naked harmonies and listener-friendly arrangements that spread a unique aesthetic across the creative landscape, 2020 is a burgeoning state-of-the-nation address.
Not since Sleaford Mods’ English Tapas, has an album probed a nation’s conscious in this manner, providing raw disturbing accounts that bleed with street level truths.
Through his characters, Dawson breathes vitality into the sleepwalking working class. Small voices, once unheard, vividly brought to life by Dawson, who transforms the mundane into something cataclysmic.
Produced in Blank Studios, the newly refurbished local studio of Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs‘ Sam Grant, 2020 begins with a riff that could accompany a nursery rhyme.
In this case the track is Civil Servant and nursery rhyme this is not – its protagonist reaching the boiling point of working life with worries of sick leave, customer disability pensions, taking to fellow colleagues with Sellotape dispensers and surrounded by the very same colleagues after work in Wetherspoons laughing at inappropriate jokes.
Most of us can directly relate to at least one of these references.
The Queen’s Head is centred around a story of a community trying to save their pub after the Humber River bursts its banks. Like all of Dawson‘s tales, more characters splay across the canvas.
There’s the racist butcher bemoaning the lack of flood defences, blaming it on benefit scrounging immigrants, while neighbours who have never met one another scramble to save the pub from continuous rising flood waters.
Two Halves and Jogging see Dawson sonically shifting more towards a framework of pop. When pop and Dawson meet, have no fear. He’s safe from Radio 1.
The brilliantly crafted Two Halves is a story of a furious father screaming instructions from the football touchline to his son on the pitch.
Whilst you could see this level of aggression and caught-in-the-moment snapshot playing out all across the country on any given Saturday morning, this story ends quite well for a Richard Dawson tale, with the father suggesting to his son that he dust himself off and look to the next game, also offering him the choice of fish and chips or a Chinese on the way home.
While Civil Servant, and later Fulfilment Centre, touch on the aspect of mental health, it’s Jogging that truly nails such themes to the mast.
Jogging sits close to the bone with the mass culture psyche.
Dawson starts by singing, “Recently I’ve been struggling with anxiety,” in his Geordie native tongue, the “t” in anxiety remaining silent. The protagonist’s existence and self-worth recedes by taking voluntary redundancy as a counsellor, now filling in days as a freelance graphic designer and searching on Ebay and Zoopla.
He eventually tries to alleviate his anxieties by jogging, eventually trying to raise money for the British Red Cross by running the London Marathon.
On his fitness travails, the protagonist encounters buskers changing the words to Oasis‘ Wonderwall and more racial tension, this time a Kurdish family who have had a brick thrown through their kitchen window.
“It’s lonely up here in middle-England,” sings Dawson, as his character feels more alienated, enveloped in a community growing more disconnected and mean-spirited to by the day. Sound familiar?
Jerky arrangements, creaky synths and Dawson‘s rich falsetto dominate the aptly titled Heart Emjoi, which references Classic FM, the Carling Academy, and Cash Converters. Despite the track’s humorous surface, there’s a murky undercurrent which bubbles, touching on the dangers of unhealthy relationships between two people.
Black Triangle sounds like an absurd shotgun wedding between jangle-pop and cheesy electro-metal. Thematically, Black Triangle is equally as wild, its characters sighting a UFO over the Aldi car park which turns into the main protagonist becoming a full-blown obsessive on the subject.
Much to the disgust of his wife, of course, who ends up binning him off in favour of a widower she meets at the local pilates class.
It sounds like Emmerdale morphed with Red Dwarf, but again, Dawson uses sonically eccentric juxtapositions to capture these equally incongruous tales which play out in everyday life.
Fulfilment Centre recounts a story of a warehouse worker’s employment horror, facilitating mass culture’s materialistic impulses not limited to gaming consoles, football shirts, power tools and snooker cues, to the point where toilet breaks equate to being chained to production lines and pissing in discarded water bottles.
It’s a story all too familiar, rubbing awfully close to that certain someone who is a wet dream for aspiring free market capitalists. The same certain someone who has turned corporate tax avoidance into a glorified art form. Hint hint.
Fulfilment Centre sees Dawson part with his most jarring moment yet as he emphatically parts with the harrowing line, “there’s more – there has to be – more to life than killing yourself to survive.”
Following Fulfilment Centre is Fresher’s Ball – a tender account of a parent driving his daughter down to a university, presumably Leeds University, for her first day. It’s as close to a ballad as Dawson will ever get.
Along with Jogging and Two Halves, the streamlined jangly riff that runs through Dead Dog in an Alleyway is 2020‘s most pop orientated moment, which provides an interesting edge, considering it’s perhaps the saddest track on the album.
Dead Dog in an Alleyway is a song viewed through the lens of a homeless person trying to find a place to sleep for the night, amid neon shop signs, dead dogs, vomiting drunks and police sirens.
It’s a scene enveloped in chaos. A chaos that is beyond normalised for far too many people in the United Kingdom. The song is a fitting end to 2020.
We could delve further into each of these songs and the above musings are merely scratching the surface, for each of these nine windswept compositions lend themselves to their audience more and more with each listen. That’s what great albums do.
They reveal tiny nuggets of gold each time of asking. So much so that it feels negligent to have placed each track under such a foggy microscope.
There is a tender humility that Dawson portrays through his protagonists. Never has he been so empathetic. Perhaps it’s the era his subjects live in, but 2020 feels like Dawson at his humanising best.
As Brexit looms, with the cost of living rising, homelessness increasing and health services on their last legs, Dawson provides a deep and disturbing account on all of these issues, conjuring up an album that elucidates a collective existential anxiety.
Some music can feel like an intellectual exercise but with Dawson‘s 2020, whilst musically sometimes challenging, his unyielding storytelling qualities guide us away from these potentially rocky terrains. Like distracting a child from their greatest fear by offering them sweets instead.
Dawson could probably do stand-up political satire that rivals Jonathan Pie. He could definitely better his Geordie counterpart in Alan Shearer on Match of the Day (just listen to Two Halves). There is no subject too far from his fertile mind.
Having ceaselessly held an ear to 2020 and time and time again you just shake your head with a wry un-fucking-believable smile. It’s difficult to truly ascertain its genius.
With its existence so current (eighteen days), these sentiments may feel forced. Words overcooked. Opinions outlandish. Will the magic ebb? Simply, the answer is this: who knows?
Today, it doesn’t feel like it at all, and as someone who lives for new music, albums like Richard Dawson‘s 2020 aren’t stumbled upon too often.
Dawson owes as much to the origins of folk music as much as he does to redefining the boundaries of punk (yes, punk). Aesthetically, Dawson’s poignant campfire yarns are caught in the crosshairs of both genres.
People talk about punk being an attitude or a sound but the in-between is sometimes forgotten. That in-between is the aesthetic.
Anyone that can crystallise the everyday as masterfully as Dawson does has very much lived it. It’s undeniably human. These things are happening every single day. It’s real.
The mechanics of Dawson’s conception, both sonically and lyrically, moves against the grain of anything released in years.
Unlike many punk luminaries of the past, Dawson is not preaching to the converted or kicking against anything. He’s just telling it like it is.
He’s reporting and he’s doing it in a way like no other song-writer has and that’s why 2020 feels like a punk record as much as it is a folk record.
It’s song-writing with a profound use of language that should make any aspiring artist seriously question their own endeavours. Not that 2020 or Richard Dawson come with these harsh intentions, but with a virtuoso occupying another stratosphere, if anyone has come within a bull’s roar of the artistic quality on display here then not only I am yet to hear it, it’s going to be a long time before I or anybody else does.
They say write what you know and with the shiveringly appropriate 2020 Dawson has orchestrated an incredible exhibition of the inner workings of everyday life for everyday people in the north of England. With 2020, it reaffirms his position as the finest wordsmith this country has to offer. Richard Dawson. The anti-hero. Richard Dawson. The modest messiah.