Richard Dawson is the Poet Laureate of British Dread

Dominic Angelella talks The Ruby Cord.

The other night, I sat down to watch a movie that had been on my mind for a while, Ben Wheatley’s 2013 period piece A Field In England. I first saw this film a few years ago and remembered enjoying it, though my mind tended to wander as the characters — peasants conscripted into the King’s army during the 17th century English Civil War — ingested hallucinogens and wandered the countryside looking for arcane treasure. Blame it on Twitter, or cultural attention deficit disorder, but at the time I could not focus. So for my rewatch, I turned off my phone and darkened all the lights in the house, preparing to immerse myself in the world of a movie like I used to as a kid. 

Turns out, this approach worked. The movie opened itself up to me as a classic of the genre I like to call British Dread, a style that stretches across art forms. British Dread is often stark and brutal, an unforgiving portrait of the violence and austerity that capitalism and colonialism have inflicted upon the world. It can be seen in Francis Bacon’s paintings, heard in the lyrics of every good British punk singer from Mark E. Smith to Billy Nomates (as well as elder indie rock statesman John Cale), read in works by Alan Moore and J.G. Ballard. More often than not, these artists make work that is dense and dry, and I find that it takes patience for me to really delve in. 

The talented English singer-songwriter Richard Dawson is, in my humble estimation, the current Poet Laureate of British Dread. And much like A Field In England, his most recent work demands the listener turn off all distractions and immerse their self in its vast world. 

Late last year, Dawson released The Ruby Cord, the third and final album in a trilogy that started with 2017’s Peasant and continued with 2019’s 2020. The three albums deal with the inhabitants of Newcastle upon Tyne (a near-coastal city in Northern England, and Dawson’s hometown) throughout history. Peasant takes place in the Northern Briton kingdom of Bryneich between 400 and 600 CE, and 2020 is set in the same location, but in modern day. The songs on these records are intense character studies, showing the trials and tribulations of the people inhabiting these different eras. In Bryneich, soldiers run from battle and a woman goes into early labor on the steps of a merchant’s guild with a crab caught in her hair. In modern times, a cashier smirks at the narrator and throws him into a weeklong anxiety attack. (It bears mentioning that my dear friend Eric Slick wrote a review of 2020 for Talkhouse that you can find here.) These songs are easy to love; inventive, tragic, and hysterical. 

With The Ruby Cord, Dawson makes clear what he’s been aiming for this whole time. Stretching through centuries, this trilogy of records weaves together historical fiction, bleak modern satire, and speculative sci-fi to build an immense world for the listener to inhabit, full of psychedelic imagery, gallows-humor, and sadness. Most of the music journalism about The Ruby Cord centers around the opening track, “The Hermit.” At 41 minutes, it’s about as long as most records. In a time when songs and attention-spans are getting shorter and shorter, “The Hermit” is a mammoth statement. There are long stretches of group improvisation; entire verses are sung a capella; and the sole lyrical content of the last 13 minutes is an abstract and brief poem, set to melody. All the while Dawson painstakingly introduces us to the world of The Ruby Cord, which is set in Newcastle upon Tyne 500 years in the future. The titular character of “The Hermit” awakes by a riverbed and surveys the idyllic surroundings in which he makes his life. The setting at first feels like it fits nicely into his earlier songs about medieval serfdom, but 20 minutes in the narrator is fitted with some kind of Predator-style visual upgrade that allows him to see the natural world around him in staggering and uncanny detail. The song works like a fusion of Dawson’s previous two records. Society has fallen but technology has continued to progress, and the few surviving humans forage and hunt with the aid of computers and the internet. The details are unclear, but the images are strong, and throughout the song’s epic length Dawson pulls the listener in, demanding our full attention.

After making our way through “The Hermit,” Dawson treats us to more terror, desolation, and, occasionally, humor as he builds the future world of The Ruby Cord. One of the most powerful songs on this record concerns a Luddite who extols the virtues of self-sufficiency, teaching his daughter to make arrows for a hunt even though everything they could possibly want is available for sale at a nearby castle. He explains that learning how to do things through the internet is merely “wisdom’s simulacrum,” and that “real knowledge must be earned.” When the time for the hunt comes, the arrows he worked so hard to perfect fail, and their prey escapes. Dawson’s skill as a writer especially shines here. The song is both a wry takedown of alpha-mindset/back-to-the-land primitivists who resist technology at all costs and a tragic story of parental failure. It’s complicated to make a listener feel empathy and laugh at a character in tandem, and Dawson pulls it off. 

In a 2017 interview, Dawson described his creative process as “throwing a stone into the woods and [having] people beat their own path towards it.” All of his albums have a certain amount of abstract writing, and The Ruby Cord has it in spades. It’s no surprise then, why some music writers have reacted to this record with a bit of confused indifference. Pitchfork’s Sam Goldener even went so far as to call the record “a colossal, corroding moment strangely devoid of a soul.” It’s understandable why this record might make someone feel that way. Many moments on The Ruby Cord sketch out a dreadful, eerie vision of the future. However, the record’s final track communicates what I believe to be the overarching message of Dawson’s entire trilogy. Titled “Horse and Rider,” the song is from the perspective of a horse taking a woman through the post-apocalyptic landscape. Towards the end of the song the horse wonders if his rider knows what he knows, that there is no way back to the old world. The only way out, he says, is “forward and down.” Bleak as this may be, we go together. We have been journeying through this world of wonder, horror, and hilarity together, and will continue to do so, a “neverending passage through the cold and dark.” 

Neverending passage through the cold and dark. What is British Dread if not this? Perceiving life as a trudge through the muck, much like the drunken nihilists of Mark E. Smith lyrics, the protagonists of Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England, or the desperate peons of Dawson’s Peasant. Inside this endless cycle of pain and suffering are captivating human stories, and Dawson knows this is what is interesting about history. Not a grand arc of colonial conquest, but our collective journey through the beautiful highs and the crushing lows of time on Earth.

Dominic Angelella is a songwriter and musician born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. He currently plays bass for Lucy Dacus, has toured with Natalie Prass and MewithoutYou, and has played on records by Kendrick Lamar, Juicy J, Mac Miller, Hop Along, and more. In addition to his resumé as a touring and recording musician he releases records under his own name, most recently Poison River, out now on Lame-O Records.

(Photo Credit: Josh Pelta-Heller)