Peasant by Richard Dawson
Released on Weird World / Domino on 2 June
Review by Ben Myers
There’s a moment in the pastorally-toned ‘Ogre’, the lead track of Richard Dawson’s new album Peasant, when his discordant strumming and cracked vocals shift into a falsetto that sings a nautical poetry in counterpoint to an elegiac chorus of female voices declaring “When the sun is climbing…” Beneath it is a foundation of all manner of other instruments plucked and rattled, and in this moment he summons the scent of salt, the sound of shale shifting in the undertow, the sun playing across the shimmering North Sea like a rising shoal of herring drawn to its warming spring rays. Overhead, a lone seagull hovering between sky and shoreline. The centuries unravel and time slips away.
Yet just beneath the surface of the song is an underlying darkness that is only hinted at, a gnawing anxiety revealed in fleeting glimpses until the choir of ragged voices become hypnotic and siren-like as they lure the listener in with their strange incantation, and it becomes apparent they may actually be singing “When the sun is dying…” while Dawson tells of ebbing tides and summons MR James-esque landscape horror images such “in the face of the cliff, a ghastly doorway”. It’s a song that shipwrecks the mind, body and soul.
It’s this duality between not only light and dark but worlds ancient and modern that makes Dawson such an arresting and unconventional songwriter, and where his possible genius lies. This deep unease was previously most obviously discernible in his career highlight, ‘The Vile Stuff’, from 2014’s Nothing Important, in which Christ’s apostles are resurrected during a calamitous school trip in Northumbria that is haunted by a spirit unleashed by a group of Year Seven boys to wreak havoc and injury. Like a Hogarth or Bosch painting it was intense and chaotic in its exploration of man’s dark side, yet it was a hilarious and absurdist miniature epic too, Dawson delivering comic couplets with the wit and timing of a working men’s club turn who has honed his craft between the magician and the meat raffle: “My neighbour Andrew lost two fingers to a Staffie-cross / Whilst jogging over Cow Hill with a Pepperami in his bum-bag”.
Each response to music is of course utterly unique, but when I listen to Peasant, Dawson’s strongest and most accessible album to date, the eleven odd and beguiling pieces unleash a flood, a rush, a deluge of images, ideas and memories that are almost Proustian in their transportative power. I think of English town criers, stone-age men cracking rocks together, The Flumps. I’m reminded of the violence-inducing properties of Newcastle Brown Ale, the fractured poetry of Beefheart’s ‘The Dust Blows Forward N’ The Dust Blows Back’, the verses of writer Tom Pickard. I recall Winstanley, Ewan MacCall’s radio documentaries and Tom Waits’ ‘Jockey Full Of Bourbon’. In my mind I am reliving Jossy’s Giants, The Young Tradition, Moondog, Super Gran, Hasil Adkins. I am knee-deep in the autumnal mud of The Hoppings annual fair on Newcastle Town Moor or hearing birdsong on Holy Island at the height of summer. I am recalling the Third Ear Band, Viz circa 1988, Laura Cannell’s Simultaneous Flight Movement, obscure 90s skiffle-pop band Zuno Men, ‘Janitor Of Lunacy’ by Nico, comedian Bobby Thompson, Bogshed and the work of Oliver Postgate, Bert Jansch and Penderecki’s ‘Threnody For The Victims of Hiroshima’. I close my eyes and see school trips to Beamish museum, the paintings of Bruegel the Elder, a tumbleweed of candy floss wheeling through a dirty puddle in derelict Whitley Bay amusement park Spanish City.
I am travelling back through time now, walking from Byker to Benwell on magic mushrooms at midnight on a frosty Friday or recoiling from the human turd that was kept in the backstage dressing room freezer at Newcastle Riverside for several months in the early 1990s. I think of the folk music of The Horse Loom, the Child Ballads, The Incredible String Band, Cate Le Bon, The Watersons and the Durham coalfield songs of pitman-poet Tommy Armstrong. I can taste cherry tobacco in liquorice skins; I remember trips to Keswick Pencil Museum and Grott Guitars on a Saturday afternoon. I am reliving past moments over and again, layers of time peeling back. I am eating a pork pie in a snowstorm in Haltwhistle, hearing stories about modern men with gout, remembering the words to Gerrard Winstanley’s 17th century land rights protest song ‘The Diggers’, watching a lone hare on a Yorkshire Dales hill. I am reaching for memories and images and sensations now as they drift by – of Dante’s Inferno, Davey Graham, ‘The Blaydon Races’, Richard and Linda Thompson, Norwegian black metal, an autumn breeze whistling through the Roman remains of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall and a nice flask of spicy parsnip soup. All this evoked by music, words and the unknown, unexplainable sense of otherness that stalks the peripherals of Dawson’s music.
If Nothing Important was a two-headed beast comprised of two ear-piercing guitar bursts and two meandering confessional narratives, then Peasant is a more coherent work, the sound of English folk music being dragged through centuries of mud and shadows and out into a woodland clearing. As ever Richard Dawson’s notes are unexpected, his guitar playing non-linear and his melodies by turns mellifluous and brilliantly cantankerous. It is perhaps no understatement to say that he is casually reinventing a musical genre that has historically often felt restricted by its own limitations.
In exploring drones and odd time signatures, never shying away from humour (the parping brass-off conclusion to opener ‘Herald’ is like Vic Reeves conducting Grimethorpe Colliery Band), and always displaying a Victorian/gothic storytellers’ skill for weaving unnerving narratives (“Our baby’s lips are blue / Our baby’s eyes grow dim…” he sings on ‘Hob’), he has actually made a quintessentially English folk album, one which draws from the past to interrogate the present while looking outward to a wider world. So, song titles such as ‘Beggar’, ‘Prostitute’ – two of the oldest ‘professions’ in the world – can sit alongside an utterly moving closing ten-minute piece called ‘Masseuse’.
Peasant is an album that builds its own world and occupies it entirely; one where unmapped songs twist and turn, and where new ideas occur from moment to moment. Here is a collection – here is a voice – that will ring down through the ages.
Peasant is out on 2 June. Order a copy here.