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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Album Review: 2020 by Richard Dawson

The fifth full solo album from Newcastle-born progressive folk musician Richard Dawson overflows with jagged wit, earnest pathos and poignant melancholy, its subject matter timely and sentiment urgent.

I only learned of Richard Dawson's existence a few months ago, after stumbling onto the first single from this album on YouTube. That song, Jogging, is a wonderful ballad that details the struggles of a graphic designer who takes up running to help with his anxiety. 

I quickly found the song to be catchy, witty, esoteric and wonderful. It challenged me though - I didn't like it at first, but I kept coming back, unable to get it out of my mind, and even now I find myself singing particular phrases in idle moments.

It is a grower, and was unlike anything I had heard for a while - a blend of wry Northern lyricism, earnest slice-of-life storytelling akin to the music of Belle and Sebastian and the kind of meaty, plastic-wrapped indie-pop played by the culty but wonderful Mull Historical Society. 

After hearing that song, I went back and listened to Dawson's earlier works. There are gems to be found there, including Black Dog In The Sky from his major label debut The Magic Bridge, and The Ghost Of A Tree from his third album The Glass Trunk

Undoubtedly though, Dawson's back catalogue is largely packed with very arch, very strange experimental guitar music, much of it instrumental, with many of his sung-songs delivered acapella.

I mention all of this to emphasise that 2020 marks a real sea-change in his music. 

Plainly, Dawson has been getting better and better by degrees, moving closer and closer towards this album - a record that marries his unique brand of off-kilter barding with modern pop and indie rock production. 

If you have ever listened to Jim Noir, his trademark sound - twee, cute, very English - is the closest point of reference I can think of, but even he always sounded a bit cuddly, and his songs were more than a little reminiscent of others by Super Furry Animals and Blur.

By contrast, Dawson's album before this one, 2017's Peasant, was a collection of story-songs detailing the macabre, melancholy lives of 6th century itinerant workers over pseudo-Medieval guitar plucks. It was fiercely intellectual, and although that album did feature a few wibbly computer noises it was mostly built out of harmonic finger playing, free verse poetry, and discord.

Choirs popped up now and then on that album, as they had in Dawson's earlier works, but it was basically an hour of noodling and strange, archaic, slightly satirical tales sung as if to simultaneously haunt, amuse and unsettle.

Try Soldier, below, to see what I mean:

It's pretty obscure stuff, while this album is clearer in every respect - as the title implies - even if it does relate to Peasant in a few key ways. 

For example, both records feature an interstitial penultimate track called No-one; they are different songs album to album, but through both we seem to hear the sound of a demon or ghost struggling to communicate - apropos of nothing.

More pressingly, both albums are all about salt-of-the-earth types. While Peasant featured songs like Soldier, Prostitute or the excellent closing track Masseuse, 2020 features tunes including Civil Servant, Fresher's Ball (about a working class parent dropping their child at University) or the 10-minute epic Fulfilment Centre, a song that details the miserable life of a labourer at an Amazon warehouse.

This subject matter is thoughtful, touching and imperative - Dawson's characters are the kind of people undeservedly unsung; not heroes, perhaps, but protagonists, all of whom are given believable, complex voices on this album.

Check out The Queen's Head for example, about a Newcastle landlord whose learns that his livelihood has been washed away in a flood:

It is brilliant, compulsive, passionate storytelling, alluding to climate change, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the kind of overly familiar, parochial Englishness that contributed to the ongoing miseries of Brexit.


It is also a song representative of the album - intellectually potent and musically restless. Experimental, brave and ranging. 

As mentioned above though, Dawson's back catalogue has been defined by intricate, atonal, shaggily discordant music that suddenly resolves in soaring harmonies before falling again into a soup of lunacy. It is very hard to listen to any one of his previous albums from beginning to end in full, in fact - even the fairly cohesive Peasant fell into a bit of a formula, with too many songs descending into mad musical breakdowns that overstayed their welcomes. 

Likewise, Dawson's range of instrument choices had previously been a little limited, which became somewhat deadening at times, overly knotty at others, and trying to listen to song after song of such fierce virtuosity was difficult; his guitar playing is brilliant, but too much of it constricted the range of feelings he could evoke, particularly once all of those ballads were stacked on top of one another.

Thankfully, for this album Dawson has broadened his scope and been more merciful on his listeners. As such, while 2020 can spiral off and push in wild, unpredictable directions, it is mostly very pleasant on the ear, and many of the songs go as far as being toe-tappers.

The outstanding Black Triangle, for example, opens sounding like The Who's Baba O'Riley before mutating into something more akin to King Crimson's 21st Century Schizoid Man, before it then explodes into a greasy, gyrating, heavy rock slow-jam that might have been written by Queens of the Stone Age.

It's an epic tune that ends perfectly and even invites a bit of a head-bang. But that's not to say that the song, or the album, quite qualify as indie pop, or even rock.

Let's not ignore the fact, for example, that the song is 8-minutes long and explores obsession, single-parenthood and alien abductions, with weirdy-beardy ideas juxtaposed with mentions of kitchen sink concerns - Pilates classes, Chinese takeaways and YouTube channels.

Despite the modern setting and instrumentation then, 2020 is a folk record at heart, albeit a progressive one, both politically and compositionally. It feels connected to the past - hindsight is, of course, 2020 - but it is futuristic too, offering a diagnosis of modern culture in the United Kingdom that feels edgy and true, despite its obvious pretensions and relentless intellectual heft.

And perhaps not all the songs are fully developed - Heart Emoji is brilliant, but it falters a little, not quite capitalising on its opening to deliver as powerful, decisive a conclusion as the song deserves.

Still, the album is extremely listenable, end to end - even though it won't be one for everyone due to its strangeness. It isn't likely to be a record that anyone throws on at a party either, but, much like Radiohead's OK Computer, a record to which this one bears a number of flattering comparisons, it is experimental, cerebral and brilliant.

As such, if you are looking for a set of crafted, careful, clever songs that evoke Britain's industrial present while also sounding like nothing else, I would propose that you can't do much better.

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