14 May 2017

A Tiny Draught of The Vile Stuff: The Stubborn Beauty of Richard Dawson

"My bedroom walls are papered with the stripes of Newcastle United
Between which I perceive the presence of a horse-headed figure
Holding aloft a flaming quiver of bramble silhouettes
He is the King of Children
Singing like a boiler: 'Tomorrow is on its way'"
- Richard Dawson 'The Vile Stuff'

What if... the water supply of the Simpsons retirement home was spiked with LSD, whilst what sounds like three different guitars battle out to play three different songs? And what if... the guitar amp was actually powered by rusted lines on deserted pylons, whose creaking structures are by now fully submerged? On the Newcastle artist Richard Dawon's outstanding 2014 album, Nothing Important, the impression is given that a fuse may overheat at any moment; great sparks erupting, leaving the plastic plug socket an oozing, molten mess.

Dawson's guitar is a turbulent creature, at times seeming to violently disavow the wishes of its player. It's an instrument prone to deviant fits of (mis)behaviour; sloppy sounding and rhythmically jumbled, like a crazed butcher hacking away at a carcass with a blunt blade. Meanwhile Dawson's voice alternates between a guttural gasp and shrill falsetto, sounding both regionally specific and wholly unfamiliar. Across three solo albums proper (The Magic Bridge, The Glass Trunk, Nothing Important), Richard has managed to carve out a position as England's most visionary singer-songwriter.

It should be noted that calling Dawson: 'England's most visionary singer-songwriter', may give off the impression that I'm actually damning him with faint praise. After all, in 2017, there may be no musical pursuit in ruder health than the singer-songwriter. Just walk around any large town or city and you'll soon find these phantoms haunting each street corner, a foul stench of Hey There Delilah testing the sanity of each passer by - a song as inane as it is infuriating. But be rest assured, unlike these man-bunned disciples of Sheeran, Dawson's approach to the form is a vital one, simply burgeoning with possibility.

In the middle of April, Dawson announced the release of his latest album Peasant - due to come out June 2nd - along with an accompanying video for the track Ogre. The song delves ever more explicitly into England's archaic past, but looks upon history not as something quantifiable - a series of dry factual observations - for Dawson, it's a kaleidoscopic venture, taking stock of how the conditions and culture of the time - the early middle ages, the dark ages - affected people in an emotional, visceral manner.

Musically it seems to conjure images of some kind of ancient village fayre, but with a malign presence creeping in to the otherwise joyous gathering; a theme which the video only enhances - dense in sacrificial imagery; the cheery eyed locals lost in jubilant dance whilst Dawson's tied body is set ablaze. The sound is fuller now, something which was hinted at during the looming demise of 2014s The Vile Stuff, and although it is significantly more festive, Ogre's instrumentation is equally eruptive. It's an unbalanced affair, like a pissed merchant dragging a chest of china along a cliff face.

Peasant opens with Herald, a piece which reveals a great deal about Dawson as an artist. Initially its horns seem almost regal, something you could imagine floating across a baron battlefield, yet it quickly descends to a sputtering farting sound, absurd, almost humorous. That's the thing about Dawson's form of experimentation, it can be difficult, abrasive, baffling, but also at times rather funny - when looked upon from the right angle. It's a quality which needn't be to surprising, go along to any of his gigs and you'll find a performer cracking jokes mere moments after spurts of ear shattering dissonance.

Peasant is largely a more welcoming listen than Nothing Important, though its lyricism does deal with extreme hardship during a turbulent time in Britain's history - after the Roman Empire's withdrawal, many communities reverted back to effectively tribal conditions. Many who try to document monumental seismic shifts throughout history do so in a great, sweeping, panoramic manner, forgetting how equally important it is to gaze upon the micro, the personal. After all, so much insight can be gained, in relation to large scale global or national change, by seeing how it effects individual people and communities.

Now it's not the first time Dawson has overtly dealt with Britain's long forgotten past. On 2013's The Glass Trunk, he was tasked by a museum in Newcastle to create material inspired by the artefacts he found there. The resulting album comprises of a series of acapella numbers, as well as squealing improvised collaborations between Dawson on guitar and fellow maverick Rhodri Davies on an overdriven harp.

Across The Glass Trunk, and now many parts of Peasant, Richard fixes his stare upon rustic living throughout the ages, but not in a pastoral, idealised manner. Instead it's gruff, at times grating textures, sonically evoke your hand being bludgeoned on a rusty barbed fence, or loosing your steady footing and tumbling into a ravine. Now... violent and unpleasant imagery has been repeatedly touched upon throughout this article. making it important to clarify that - as always with Dawson - nothing is ever so one dimensional. Each moment of painful catharsis is juxtaposed against ecstatic beauty, taking into account the duality of every experience he documents.

Lyrically though, it is true that The Glass Trunk can be alarmingly blunt. The harrowing Poor old horse explicitly details how the tired animal was put to death; a gruesome recounting, describing how "they broke its leg with a rusty spade, then all upon it heavily laid, to quell the struggle each did their part, until the blade had reached its heart." Meanwhile, across the improvised pieces, they will often descend into a kind of viscous dirge, a woozy, seesawing momentum falling into place; pungent harmonic shades, like toxic smoke pillowing from an old power station.

This viscous dirge is a feature of his sound now spreading across numerous releases, most frequently during any collaboration with Rhodri Davies. Their joint LP Hen Ogledd - which they released as Dawson-Davies - was of a similar nature to their work together on The Glass Trunk, stubborn, devastating beauty; a beauty which can only be salvaged from the tautest of conflict, during moments of knackered reflection. Perhaps the most potent album made by this pair of decrepit virtuosos would be 2016s Bronze, which they released under the moniker Hen Ogledd, along with the electronic artist Dawn Bothwell.

Featuring the recorder work of Laura Cannell, Bronze creates a bizarre alternate reality, where the clattering cacophony of This Heat, meets primitive electronic burbling's - and vocals not too dissimilar to Inga Copeland. These more modern touchstones sit next to the all too living ghosts of an untamed, treacherous marshland, as well as odd musical assortments that you'd sooner expect to find within a remote English primary school. Its a truly bizarre, haunting release; one very difficult to situate within any specific context, and ends up being all the more impactful as a result.

The song Prostitute - which features on his upcoming album, Peasant - continues his pennant towards baffling all who choose to listen, a song which mid way through is overcome by a sound being played on god knows what... my guess is a tornado trapped inside an electrified kazoo. Then, just a couple of songs later, the turbulent Scientist ends with an acoustic guitar being thrashed within an inch of its life, like a chunk of scrap metal being chucked into a blender, a sound which is genuinely, physically alarming.

But shouldn't innovation feel alarming anyway? Like having a harpoon thrust at your chest, and then coming to the realisation that a harpoon is exactly what your chest has been missing. In the case of Dawson, it's at times akin to a flock of harpoons surging through your limp body, tugging it into all manner of unnatural shapes. Take Judas Iscariot - the opener to Nothing Important - a piece which thrives on discombobulating the senses, pulling the rug from under all standard notions of rhythm and melody.

Though it's not restricted to the sonic qualities either. Lyrically there's an equally strange brew taking shape; drawing in the bizarre, hilarious, touching, disturbing, harrowing... hell there's little that it doesn't draw from. Perhaps some of the odder elements can be attributed to the theme of memory, after all, for the unreliable, nostalgia ridden human mind, memory can be a bewildering thing, something looked upon as a form of comfort, yet also something increasingly more hard to retain.

These unsure recollections can be both wilfully nostalgic and cuttingly brutal, although however viscerally honest Dawson's lyrics are, they never fall into that tired archetype of the confessional singer-songwriter, whether it be on Grandad's Deathbed Hallucinations - from the excellent 2012 album The Magic Bridge - or the almost unbearably powerful Nothing Important.

Though memory is one source for the strangeness and beauty of his words, another key source is the supernatural. This theme is is undeniably a key factor to his mystique, but its important to be reminded that this spiritual side is not always one of warmth and reassurance...

Writing about The Fall, Mark Fisher - who sadly passed away earlier this year - keenly observed that Mark E Smith's "fictions would locate spectres in the urban here and now; he would establish that their antagonisms were not archaisms." These uncanny visitors shouldn't be here, we've now become accustomed to the idea that there are no more spirits lurking in the shadows, Dawson's "horse headed figure", but a figment of our imagination. Since we've confined these superstitions to a less well educated, more rural time, it becomes all the more unnerving to see their heads once again rear, infesting the city with heinous black magick.

These are the kind of omens which manifest themselves during Richard Dawson's The Vile Stuff, a mammoth like exploration of teenage drinking - dense in spiritual allusions, darkly psychedelic imagery, and foggy recollections of a lost youth. As the Quietus' John Doran noted, "Such is the powerful evocation of the teenage experience, the listener could be forgiven for presuming this is the be-all and end-all of the song." This is where lies the most unsettling aspect... how thinly veiled the religious/demonic themes actually are.

During Doran's interview with Dawson, Richard himself suggested that "The song is almost like a cross between Dante’s Inferno - which I’m reading slowly at the moment - and a Hieronymus Bosch painting but with the characters drawn by Matt Groening." It does feel like some kind of lysergic, graphic collage; cut-up images from ghoulish cartoons, stained glass windows, school photo albums, as well as illustrations from books themed on the occult. These all coalesce in a way somehow both vivid and scatterbrained, like simultaneously watching the events unfold in front of you, whilst also experiencing them half formed during a trip gone horribly wrong.

The focusing in on an accident which occurred during a school trip, does not seem to bring in its wake seismic ramifications. Yet as Doran notes during the interview, if we look upon the names of each character - throughout this part of the song and its remaining tales - then we discover that they are actually that of Christ's apostles, with one noticeable absence... John. "By omission this casts the narrator as John," Doran posits, "which is apt as this apocalyptic vision of young lives potentially falling apart is his Revelation." This alone hints at the ambition of Dawson's material, the willingness to tackle audacious material, simply delving further than many contemporaries will dare.

Now, I personally despise the overuse of the word of the word pretentious, a word bandied around to reign in ambition, to paint those who supposedly 'overreach' in a negative light. Well, with Dawson, he easily strikes me as a profoundly unpretentious artist - according to its dictionary definition of: "attempting to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed". With Dawson, he has a greatly empathetic demeanour about his work... whether dealing with either grand or interpersonal themes. As a result of this, the way he documents the grief of others never feels voyeuristic or exploitative, instead, his sensitive approach to lyricism, paired with his absurd formal ambition, leaves little doubt that he has now become British music's most cherished secret.

Peasant is coming out June 2nd on the label Weird World.

(Words: Eden Tizard)