Long before the current guise of social media, in 2010 shortly after the release of his fourth novel Freedom, Jonathan Franzen spoke about the ills of it, illuminating the point that these platforms were becoming spaces for people to create fictitious versions of themselves. Since those claims, things have amplified and not for the better. In many ways, the whole landscape has become the inspiration for Richard Dawson’s seventh long-player, The Ruby Cord, which follows his 2019 masterpiece, 2020.
On The Ruby Cord, Dawson creates a world that goes beyond blurring the lines between fact and fiction. The two merely galvanise to form a new world virtual reality that, quite frankly, none of us from an older generation (okay, maybe Philip K. Dick) could have imagined. While Franzen was merely pointing out behaviours of that particular moment, not even he could have forecasted the acceleration of it.
Between the broth dribblers, weavers and sex workers that formed the patchwork of Dawson’s 2017 LP, Peasant, to the football dads, lonely co-workers exchanging heart emojis in the middle of the night and UFO enthusiasts that were the bedrock of 2020, the characters during The Ruby Cord seamlessly flit between centuries 500 years apart. At the height of the mind-bending incongruity is The Tip of an Arrow; something out of a Thomas Pynchon or Christopher Moore novel. Under the influence, throw in a bit of Tom Robbins for good measure.
The Ruby Cord is a rather large bone to gnaw on, but it’s not a case of Dawson putting his listeners on trial. After all, given his adventures with Bulblis – the project alongside his partner Sally Pilkington that went 70 releases deep and kept most of us afloat during lockdown – and the excellent collaboration with Finnish genre-straddling odyssey, Circle in Henki, The Ruby Cord is a release that ends a chapter in Dawson’s recent solo escapades.
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While the earthy Peasant and slightly slicker 2020 operated within the parameters of specific time and place, The Ruby Cord is more open to interpretation. A choose-you-own-adventure, as Dawson creates an existence that has no currency.
Having said that, all the talk of flitting between centuries could be somewhat of a ruse. At times, The Ruby Cord feels like it’s functioning between parallel universes. “I didn’t really comprehend that I was saying goodbye for the last time” and “I’ve already crossed into higher country,” Dawson sings on Thicker than Water. Then there’s the wonderful closing track, Horse and Rider. “I wonder if my lady knows there’s no way back to the world from which she was born/ And the only way out is forward and down” sings the Geordie maestro as the protagonist laments the loss of his loved one. Perhaps that other universe is heaven?
That’s the thing about VR. It’s open architecture, which in turn feeds into the ethos of art and its ambiguities.
With the 41 minute opening tour-de-force that is The Hermit, Dawson picks apart the Bulbils patchwork and preserves its most vital threads. The first 10 minutes akin to Dirty Three at quarter-speed, and in the following thirty minutes we’re swept up in a world of a loner caked in rich drama thanks to the sonic bedding, including the harp, which is delivered with a Mary Lattimore-like grace.
Strings play an important role all throughout The Ruby Cord. Thicker than Water, a sweeping orchestral composition that goes beyond the one-man choir Dawson has always been. Then there’s the electric folk of The Fool, which really does play out like a scene from the aforementioned Moore’s absurd take on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, The Serpent of Venice. Here, the protagonist reveals a love story several centuries prior (“My heart stolen in a flash” and “Ruth and I were inseparable over the course of that haunted spring”).
Containing the pop sensibilities of 2020, Museum also offers flickers of the past as the protagonist finds raw beauty in distant memories, from shoppers flicking through clothes and people watching footballer, to riot police beating the shit out of climate change protestors. Here, Dawson gives us a panoramic view on society as we know it.
While the muted static of No-one links The Ruby Cord with 2020 and Peasant, it also operates as an intermission between these absurd worlds Dawson creates. It leads into Horse and Rider, which is one of the most majestic pieces Dawson has written. A fitting end to this latest chapter of the Richard Dawson story.
Regardless of whether people consider The Ruby Cord to be the final part of a trilogy or not, it’s somewhat of a moot point. After all, Robert Rankin penned The Brentford Trilogy, and where are we now? 11 novels later…
Despite the current world events, some of which he predicted throughout 2020, we should all feel a sense of privilege to be living in a time to indulge the artistic mind of Richard Dawson. On The Ruby Cord, he weaves majestic storytelling with a new penchant for world building. Are we surprised? Of course not.
The Ruby Cord is out via Weird World/Domino. Purchase from Bandcamp.
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[…] contains all the brooding atmospheres and drama its title suggests. Featuring a choir that includes Richard Dawson and Sally Pilkington, their medieval-like chant bubbles underneath anxious guitars and John-Michael […]