The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Album Of The Week

The Rural Juror: Richard Dawson's The Ruby Cord
Darran Anderson , November 17th, 2022 10:11

Richard Dawson goes down to the woods. You're sure for a big surprise, finds Darran Anderson

Photo credit: Kuba Ryniewicz

Though never an easy calling, the hermit at least had options in the distant past. They could follow the etymological path and become a person of the wilderness. They could spend their days in ascetic contemplation and aspire to sainthood, a state some achieved for what it's worth. They could help incite uprisings like Bluebeard the Hermit or become a legend of the imperial court like Dongfang Shuo. They could become a lone and nameless nomad and slip into obscurity, as countless no doubt did. With the advent of the modern age, when existence must be justified by function, aristocrats would employ ornamental hermits to live on their properties, to add character to their landscape gardening. In our time, an age where extroversion is treated as an intrinsic virtue, to be a hermit, an asocial recluse, a hikikomori, is to be dysfunctional. The present, however, is a temporary condition.

The Ruby Cord begins with the shuffling post-folk gait of 'The Hermit' as if following the character on the album's cover, pots and pans clanking, across an unknown landscape. There's something trance-like in the way the music coalesces or threatens to, feeling its way into a world 500 years in the future, a world à la Riddley Walker that's secrets are in a lost past that could well be our present. Eleven minutes pass before Dawson's voice suddenly resounds. You catch little medieval inflections in his singing, as with Richard Thompson or Steeleye Span, but the way Dawson searches for a melody and carries you along in surprising twists and turns (perhaps anchorite jazz was once a thing or will be one day) is reminiscent of a fellow idiosyncratic figure like Robert Wyatt or the more soul-baring moments of solo Syd Barrett. It's weird and thrilling. Different sections arrive like acts in a play, until almost half-an-hour in, after a little passage of quiet restraint, hanging on every note, a chorus joins together in the rarest kind of finale where it feels like your heart might burst.

Dawson allows a world to grow on The Ruby Cord, full of dissimilar things, anachronisms essentially, where robots exist next to pseudo-medieval figures. It's more than that though. The singular idea of a world itself is in question. The gripping settings of The Ruby Cord could be within an arcane text or a VR sequence or a computer game or a dream. Or a dream within a computer game. All within a ruined future world that feels like the memory of a dark age. Dawson is melodically adventurous – it takes real nerve and faith in the audience to soar into falsetto and dive and turn as he does so – but he is also narratively adventurous, never showy or self-consciously experimental but rather pastoral, albeit a pasture of glitches and meta-realities. 'The Hermit' is not a song I fully understand but it never feels cold, arch or superior. Instead, it is inviting and generous. It leads you into a story the parameters of which are deliberately elusive, but from which you uncover resilience, menace, melancholy, love. Perhaps the point is not understanding but immersion and exploration. "What is this place?" Dawson and/or the titular hermit seems to ask. No answer is supplied, maybe because up to this point in life, history, civilisation, no single answer has been sufficient. It's a puzzling and, if you give yourself to it, captivating listen.

'The Hermit' is a hard act to follow but 'Thicker Than Water' is deft; its sprightly melody contrasting with the privations of its lyrics ("My only thought was flight from the mines… It's been days now / And I haven't seen a single creature besides / A pair of sparring magpies"). It sounds at times like a deep cut from an entirely forgotten folk-prog album from the 1970s but there's something in the interplay between Dawson and the musicians Rhodri Davies, Angharad Davies and Andrew Cheetham (who are exceptional throughout) that uniquely shimmers and then suddenly soars off in another truly joyous moment halfway in. By contrast, 'The Fool' sounds like a Heath Robinson machine producing klezmer-soundtracked nightmares before rising into a gorgeous chorus and crescendo, reminiscent of Gruff Rhys. Such is the richness, and alternating sparseness, of Dawson's music that it's not just musicians that are called to mind but artists. In its verses, 'Museum' evokes, to this mind at least, the teeming miniatures of Richard Dadd, like The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, before the aching chorus washes it all away.

Surprises abound throughout the album, mainly in sudden diversions. The desolate radiowave-haunted wilderness of 'No-one'. The playful Sufjan Stevens-esque finale of 'Museum'. The stratospheric midsection of 'The Tip Of An Arrow', which turns into a gallop that is reminiscent of none other than Iron Maiden before later returning to Celtic splendour near its end. 'Horse And Rider' is a lilting equestrian song ("Our breath mingles in the stable gloom") that is an unexpectedly moving ending to an absolute triumph of an album.

The Ruby Cord is the third part of a trilogy that includes the feudal Peasant and the damning state of the nation address 2022. There's always been a strain of the apocalyptic in Dawson's work – 'Ogre' from Peasant begins with the feel of Under Milk Wood if it took place during a nuclear winter – and it reaches its apotheosis with The Ruby Cord. Yet this is not really an album about the future. Few works about the future are really. It's about the present. It's about the different meanings of the word lost and escape. It's about survival, binds, exile, kinship, ruin, memory, nature. It's about looking outward, as well as inward, something that has made all the difference in Dawson's work, by his admission. Far from exalting being a recluse, it suggests going outside to see what you might find. If it's about the apocalypse at all, it's about the futility of fantasising about being among the last people on earth and the freedom it would bring. Why wait that long? The last days are already close. They always have been.