20 Jun 2017

Richard Dawson - Peasant (album review)

"This is about the future. If people think this album is about the past then I have absolutely failed."

(Richard Dawson interviewed in Loud and Quiet)
What a mess we're in aye? If only we could only retreat to the times of yore, "when it was all fields round here". One listen to Richard Dawson's breathtaking opus, 'Peasant', should vanquish all of this cosy but destructive nostalgia, smashing our rose smothered glasses with a single mighty blow. Yes, it is true that if you were in the lucky position of say... a nobleman, then chances are your life would have consisted of nothing but bountiful splendour. However, if you were in the far more likely scenario of say... being anything but that, then it's a whole other story entirely.

But the principle aim at the heart of 'Peasant' isn't to demolish our fetishisation of the past - despite certain lyrics more than able to accomplish this task - it's far more concerned with reclaiming the notion of community, something David Cameron's 'big society' made a complete and utter mockery of.

This theme may not be the first thing which springs to mind during the humbleness, hell even daftness of opener 'Herald', which stands in brilliant contrast to the scope of 'Peasant', flitting from regal austerity to sputtering farting sounds, like free jazz with a sense of humour. 'Ogre' begins with yet another bizarre red herring; plush and rosy sounding instrumentation, lulling us into a state of wholly misjudged comfort, before Dawson's trademark splintered playing intrudes upon this tranquil setting, bringing with it talk of "great evil abound", and a child "snatched from the speltfield".

The ravaged setting itself - a place beseeched with the mistaken presence of occult forces - is the kingdom of Bryneich, a land which serves as a backdrop for each of 'Peasant's' tales - a series of first person accounts, detailing the experiences of individuals within this troubled little microcosm. In terms of its geographical and historical context, Bryneich was a kingdom located in the north of England and south of Scotland, said to be set "any time from about 450AD to 780AD, after the withdrawal of the Roman Empire". 

Now, it wouldn't take a historian or sociologist to spot the parallels between the present chaos and the turmoil which befell the people of Bryneich. Just look at the similarities... a time of drastic change and upheaval, communities torn apart, uncertainty and a feeling of helplessness in regards to possible futures, well... I needn't go on, Dawson himself has even spoken of the material being written in the aftermath of the Brexit result. But far from becoming consumed by feelings of overwhelming nihilism, we find amongst the album connections being made between families, friends, and loved ones, a prime example being the aching balladry of 'Soldier'.

This idea stretches further than simply lyricism however, as Dawson - a figure previously in the realms of outsider isolation - is now joined by a cast of players and voices, scattered amongst the records various ascents and surging choruses. The vocals and playing do seem tangentially attached to folk, yet Dawson is still as prone as ever to spurts of form obliterating debauchery, looking upon genre in the manner of similarly stubborn mavericks like Beefheart, Jandek, or Bill Orcutt. It's a brittle language of guitar playing, to traverse is like navigating through a thicket of brambles.         

Yet despite this divergence from standard form, it is true with 'Peasant, Dawson has constructed a deeply English record, entangled within our sonic and literal landscape. And I guess that with all the putrid, flag waving nationalism, you would be forgiven for giving up hope, abandoning all notions of Englishness. But before packing up your bags, and flinging yourself as far away from this troubled little island as possible, you should first consider an alternate cultural history, one far stranger, more dynamic, a national artistic lineage truly worthy of your pride.

This is the lineage that Dawson belongs to, whether it be the eccentric pastoralism of Robert Wyatt and Comus, or the passed down tradition of Shirley Collins. It's a lineage indebted to our jagged coastline, the biting breeze, that overpowering scent emitted from our woodlands. A music imposing upon each sense; we're able to smell the foul odour, feel the coarse texture, taste the vile grub, envision malignant spectres; frankly making some very respectable songwriters feel rather hollow in comparison.     

It's also that cohabitation of the pedestrian and uncanny, a kitchen sink surrealism, political analogies manifesting themselves through the guise of spirits and shapeshifters, in a similair manner to Mark Fisher's essay on the Fall. On the blunter, less shrouded moments of despair and anguish, it can be almost unbearable in weight, take 'Prostitute', with its central line, "how is it so that a child can be brought for a years worth of grain", culminating in the sad reality that "in this day and age it's hard to explain, but it happens again and again".  

An inability to surmise rhyme or reason is obviously something that we all currently face. Everything is in such flux, making it near impossible for anyone to make any real sense of the situation, regardless of how much information you may or may not be privy to. If Dawson is preaching anything with 'Peasant', then it is the vitality of compassion, the need to at least try and understand the situation another person finds themselves in, what pressures and fears they face. 

It is however, the duty of art to transcend social context, and with 'Peasant', Dawson has created a work of tragic beauty, a truly beguiling experience, overtaken by deeply strange sonic interference. Where this stands up against the remainder of his work is ultimately trivial, as over the course of 'The Magic Bridge', 'The Glass Trunk', 'Nothing Important', and now 'Peasant', what he has been able to achieve in his art is frankly unmatched. 'Peasant' is tied to no time, unravelling truths applicable to our own era, truths that will become only more prescient in the forthcoming years. For now at least, it's essential that you seek out 'Peasant', I can assure you that won't find better album this year. 


(Words: Eden Tizard)