Richard Dawson - Peasant
- Released: 2 June 2017
- Label: Weird World/Domino Records
An exceptional figure in British folk music, (his last album Nothing Important was described as Captain Beefheart by way of Vic and Bob) Richard Dawson’s new album can barely be contained under that most traditional umbrella - it bursts with historical and literary allusions, supernatural and surreal characters and occurrences.
Peasant explores a community of the guttery medieval North-East of England through twelve characters – ‘Soldier’, ‘Prostitute’, ‘Ogre’ and so on. Dawson has explained that Peasant is set “any time from about 450AD to 780AD, after the withdrawal of the Roman Empire” and that it takes in “a panorama of a society which is at odds with itself and has great sickness in it, and perhaps doesn’t take responsibility – blame going in all the wrong directions”. Potentially heavy political subject matter, but Dawson is far more concerned with creating his own world than submitting yet another unimaginative commentary on our own.
‘Soldier’, the highlight of the album follows not a heroic warrior but an everyman fighter who longs to be back with his lover, withstanding the tasteless slop and constant fear with memories of ‘kisses spilled on my chin’ and a promise to ‘betroth without delay’ on his return. After this imagined promise, the choruses change lyrically from “I am tired/I am afraid/My heart is full of dread” to “I am tired/I am afraid/My heart is full of hope” for the final version. At this point, Dawson lets rip with a huge, ragged roar on the words ‘full of hope’ and it’s a defining moment of the album.
Its followed by a ‘Weaver’, whose sinister hoedown-sounding intro could’ve come from Tom Waits junkyard blues album Real Gone. The percussion across the whole album frequently sounds like it had been coaxed from whatever tools and offcuts were lying around an abandoned workshop. ‘Weaver’ features what sounds like leathery footstomps on a creaky sawdust floor which are then overtaken at the very end by a crescendo of wordless chanting from a chorus of female voices seeming to beckon some kind of end-of-the-world prophesy. Although Dawson has claimed it’s just a song about wool.
Something of the mixture of old English rural grimness and the supernatural or psychedelic brings to mind Ben Wheatley’s film A Field in England. Although set some 800-odd years later than Peasant, the film explores some of the same terrain of the English historical imagination. ‘Hob’ contains both of these elements to some disturbing ends, basically a version of a folk tale which must exist in hundreds of variations across Britain. Two parents despairing over their child’s illness (‘our baby’s lips are blue/our baby’s eyes grow dim’) consult ‘Hobthrush’, whose spell brings their baby back to health, but who then appears at their home to demand his gruesome end of their bargain.
Peasant is like nothing else I’ve heard this year, or probably ever. Dawson is an unusual guitar player, an unconventional singer and does some peculiar stuff with song construction and arrangement. It does recall other music, the guitar playing of Bert Jansch and Jandek, or the traditional-inflected melodies of Fairport Convention or Lindisfarne. What really makes him such a special musical artist is his ability to draw you into the world of each song, or in this case, which is even more difficult to sustain, the world drawn over a whole album. A lot of this is in his knack of creating a visual environment through not just lyrics, but the textures of the percussion and the choices of when to use dissonance or let his voice crack and strain. It can be a daunting and difficult album, even the concept will undoubtedly put many off and Dawson himself has joked about avoiding making Game of Thrones the album. Peasant is a huge leap forward from Nothing Important, which throws off the constraints of folk music or any other genre. Dawson has used the term ‘ritual community music’ in relation to his creative ambitions and he may just have conjured a new path for himself and any true believers that care to follow him.