Richard Dawson is a singer-songwriter based in Newcastle, and if you want to know much more than that about the man himself, you’ll be hard-pressed to find it in his music. His songs are never autobiographical (or at least, not mostly), and he moves so casually between personas that you’d need to be someone with an almost intrusive level of personal acquaintance to separate fact from fiction. The music itself is idiosyncratic enough: he plays guitar with a harpist’s fluency, his untamed voice is more beautiful for being so, and his lyrics are full of singularly strange imagery that might’ve been rustled up from the bargain-bin alternative to Yeats’ Spiritus Mundi.
And yet, in keeping with the folk tradition he draws on, Dawson employs his unique voice, not as a blunt instrument for self-expression, but rather as a tool for the imagining of other, different lives. Former Oxford Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill used to quote with approval a phrase from the choreographer Mark Morris: “I am not interested in self-expression. I am interested in expressiveness.” Dawson, in my view, conforms to this ideal. But what exactly does he express? Within the limits of a word count, it’d be a mild but forgivable exaggeration to throw back the question: what doesn’t he?
The issue of where to begin with Dawson’s eclectic discography isn’t easily resolved. 2011’s The Magic Bridge showcases Dawson in full Blakean visionary mode, though the narrative is always played out at a personal level: a grandfather on his deathbed, someone picking apples in a graveyard. Out of the early stuff, 2013’s The Glass Trunk is the folkiest, but not mawkishly so; ‘Poor Old Horse’ describes an instance of equine murder more barbarous than Raskolnikov’s bleakest nightmares.
His breakthrough, 2014’s Nothing Important is made up of two songs, bookended by two instrumental tracks, and provides perhaps the most direct line to Dawson’s coarse, plaintive brand of what might just fall under the rubric of ‘folk-rock’. 2017’s Peasant is set in the medieval kingdom of Bryneich in the north-east of England, exploring lives that, though sunk in ritual and superstition, don’t in some ways differ so greatly from our own. His latest album, 2019’s 2020, is heavily rock-flavoured and probably his most accessible, a collection of thumbnail sketches that takes in, among other things, a civil servant, an anxiety sufferer, a UFO-spotter and a cuckolded spouse.
Dawson’s lyrics aren’t poems; the music is too important to the cadence and stress of the lines for the words to retain their power without it. Still, they do pass that age-old test which can be used upon a line of verse to distinguish the animating spirit of poetry: they’re often almost impossible to gloss in prose. How can I hope to do justice to such a sentence as “Outside the chip shop Thaddeus Wagstaff fractures my cheekbone”, except by quoting it? How would you reconfigure the verbal economy of a statement like “I dream of bashing his skull into a brainy pulp with a Sellotape dispenser”? Faced with the quasi-Yeatsian terror of the declaration “Slow is the black dog in the sky / Who pisses and slobbers all over the world”, what more is there to say?
And yet, as I said before, the words still aren’t quite the same, mutilated and torn from their native element; if you want the full effect, you need to catch them as they’re carried by the distorting medium of Dawson’s voice. His falsetto, in particular, is a thing of beauty: on ‘Wooden Bag’, it falters into being, grows more substantial but never quite secure, until at once it fizzles out into a husky barely-croak. If you don’t like ‘bad singers’, then this probably isn’t for you. But if you can find something to like in the rough as well as the smooth, then there are few artists working today who so assuredly navigate the interplay between the two.
The only contemporary analogue I can think of is Joanna Newsom: she never borders on tunelessness quite like Dawson does, but both are fond of the same vocal one-two punch, in which a lively and somewhat precarious – often, in Dawson’s case, distinctly off-key – section gives way to a single, sustained, diatonic note: clear as a bell, certain as death and taxes. It’s enough to induce shivers.
They’re not comfortable, these songs: most of them have an uneasy, transitional quality, like milk on the turn. Dawson’s only real motive, it seems to me, is to fashion what’s mundane into a more interesting shape. He can do it with sympathy, as in his portraits of little lives which play such a large role in 2020, and he can do it with strangeness, a hallmark of his stuff from the very start. Both are usually somewhere in the mix, in truth, and the more you start to think about Dawson’s music, the more necessary they both begin to seem.
Doesn’t imaginative invention almost always begin with sympathy – even if it’s just for somebody you’ve made up? Dawson writes himself into the heads of people who aren’t exactly like him or like us, and in doing so gives us a view of life seen from multiple perspectives at once: pagan superstition, poetic transformation, grizzled cynicism, child-like wonder. Of course it’s uncomfortable. It’s meant to be. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, you’d expect the heels to rub a bit.
In 2020, the most plangent laments are reserved for those who have been forced by the modern world to adopt daily rhythms of life-denying drudgery. Set against our own ‘boring dystopia’, Dawson’s world is a realm with its horizons of possibility blown wide open: a place where it seems only right that the manifestation of “a horse-headed figure / holding aloft a flaming quiver of bramble silhouettes” should materialise against a backdrop of Newcastle United-themed wallpaper.
A mark of the true visionary, I think, is that they can have you questioning how far reality’s limits might extend. William Blake saw angels over Peckham Rye. In Richard Dawson’s mind’s eye, I like to think, Alan Shearer sometimes sips a pint with a pagan deity. Does the 21st century deserve a singer-songwriter so delightfully attuned to life’s weirder possibilities? It’s a question. That we might all benefit from spending a little more time in Dawsonland, though, seems as clear as day to me.
Image Credit: Paul Hudson via Flickr & Creative Commons.