Richard Dawson’s Tales of Brexit and Brutalism

Eric Slick (Dr. Dog) talks the English singer-songwriter’s 2020.

In 2017, my best friend Dominic Angelella sent me a link to a Tiny Mix Tapes review of Richard Dawson’s Peasant. He assured me that I’d love the record, even though sometimes our tastes don’t always line up. We’ve gotten into spats in the van before: I once shamed Dom for blasting Bright Eyes on a 2010 tour with Hop Along; he and I can’t seem to agree on how excellent the band Rush is (I’ve had to air drum “Limelight” in front of him one too many times to try to prove a point). You get the idea. If Dom is a punk on the inside, I must be a shriveled old prog rock Gollum. 

Peasant ended up being my top record of that year. Richard Dawson is a combination of all of my favorite things — the detuned guttural guitar of Bill Orcutt, the open-throated howl of Jeff Mangum, the dynamic range and sensitivity of Robert Wyatt, the bleak lyrical cynicism of Scott Walker, the wild improvisations of The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and the absurdity and abandon of Captain Beefheart. It is rare for me to hear an album that’s forward thinking and musical, and Peasant scratched every single itch. To most of my friends it sounds like evil Renaissance Faire music, but to me, it’s pure art. Dom and I joked that we’d get matching shirts that said, “Bring The Goose My Child,” a terrifying lyric from the Peasant standout “Ogre.”

Dawson’s astounding new record 2020 is something that only he could make, a character-driven songbook with tales of Brexit and brutalism. It’s a fully realized statement on the lack of empathy and compassion in the digital age. The opener is a jarring rhythmic churn called “Civil Servant.” It’s a billy club over the head in a locked record groove. Dawson sings about the mundane repetition of everyday life that makes people go postal: “Open your eyes, time to wake up/Shit, shower, brush your teeth, drain your cup/Wolf down a bowl of Ready-Brek/Fasten a tie around your neck.” The lyrics take a turn as the main character in the song reaches his breaking point: “I can’t listen anymore to the bleating of the terminally depressed/Or the stream of opinions from the creep in the office next to mine/I dream of bashing his skull into a brainy pulp with a Sellotape dispenser.” The lyrics and music gallop along in perfect synchronicity, a fucked way to start your day.

Dawson’s music sometimes sounds as if it’s an extension of the ‘70s Rock In Opposition scene. RIO was a revolutionary collective of mainland European bands who were a deeply political cross section of communists, Maoists, and feminists; the closest approximation I can think of is Art Bears’ Winter Songs, specifically the songRats And Monkeys” — “Rats and monkeys/Crowd the city/As it crumbles/Into ruin.” The late ‘70s were a paranoid time for a lot of people in the UK, and the grinding industrial noise of bands like This Heat and Throbbing Gristle were reflections of people’s hopes and fears. 

2020 is a document of this moment in time, an aural Black Mirror season for those disillusioned by their government, their 18-hour-a-day jobs, and society’s daunting pressures and expectations. My favorite track on 2020 is “Jogging,” a heartbreaking meditation on anxiety, nihilism, and xenophobia: “There’s a Kurdish family on the ground floor/Had a brick put through their kitchen window/The police know who did this, still they do nothing/It’s lonely up here in Middle-England.” 

Sonically speaking, 2020 feels more modern than Peasant. Dawson processes his voice through vocoders on “Jogging,” there’s Bon Jovi-esque Roland Juno patches on “Black Triangle,” and watery Raymond Scott sequence pads on “Heart Emoji.” All of the changes are effective and intentional. I love when an album can exist in its own space and feeling, and the landscape is still rooted down by Dawson’s singular amplified acoustic guitar sound. His guitar registers as a set of slackened wires filtered through a contact mic, equal parts percussive and melodic. He’s one of my modern six-string heroes alongside Derek Bailey, Cate Le Bon, Ahleuchatistas’ Shane Parish, and Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis. They’re all players who are almost anti-tradition, forging their own path by playing texturally instead of methodically.

There’s been a lot of talk about the infidelity tune, “Heart Emoji.” I’ve been cheated on several times in my life, and I have to say it was uncomfortable to hear “Who in the hell would be messaging you/At three-o’-bloody-clock in the morning?” The pinpoint accuracy of Dawson’s writing is high caliber, the work of an artist capable of noticing the details. Of course, I’ve never been driven to violence or especially murderous thoughts in my life, but Dawson is unafraid to go there: “Get the carving knife from the dishwasher/To stick through your heart.” The narrator then steps on a slug in the kitchen and loses the urge to kill his cheating partner. It’s a strange way to end the song, but it carries a sense of dark humor along with it. I find that a lot of great writers posses this wit. The late David Berman comes to mind when he sang, “If no one’s fond of fucking me/Maybe no one’s fucking fond of me.” I guess it’s no surprise that the last song David Berman tweeted about was Richard Dawson’s “Jogging.”

As the album comes to a close, we get a song about the horrors of working at an Amazon factory (“Fulfillment Centre”) and a song that I think might be about homelessness, “Dead Dog In An Alleyway.” As I sit ruminating about everything that I’ve just taken in, I still feel like 2020 is Richard Dawson’s “accessible” record. I played it for my bandmates in Dr. Dog on tour recently, and they were all slack-jawed at the originality of it. Dawson made something simultaneously aggressive, character-driven, and deeply personal. If you’re in the right headspace, you can also laugh along to a line such as “I thought I caught a busker/Sneak an ugly word into “Wonderwall” as I went by.”

2020 is my contender for 2019 Album of The Year. Richard, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re laughing at the absurdity of that last sentence.

Eric Slick play drums for Dr. Dog. He’s also one-third of the Philly noise punk band Lithuania. Eric has also performed/recorded with Adrian Belew, Nels Cline (Wilco), Daniel Rossen (Grizzly Bear), R. Stevie Moore, Cass McCombs, Gordon Gano, and Ween. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

(Photo credit: Shervin Lainez)