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Richard Dawson
2020 Johny Lamb , October 10th, 2019 08:40

2020 by Richard Dawson may be the British songwriter's most accessible album, but it still finds room for plenty of barbs, finds Johny Lamb

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 Dawson 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 these are always 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?