When Richard Dawson’s last record Peasant became a key fixture of 2017’s end-of-year lists, it was hard to think of a less likely culprit. Peasant was a dense kaleidoscope of 6th century character studies (‘Weaver’, ‘Beggar’, ‘Prostitute’, ‘Soldier’ and so on) set in the kingdom of Bryneich, known today as Dawson’s native North-East.
In interviews at the time, Dawson wondered aloud about the “feeling that times are right next to each other”. It’s this feeling that Dawson has followed to its logical conclusion, another album of individual portraits set in the present moment – or, as the title would suggest, the very, very near future. He does, of course, his best to dissuade you that this is what he’s doing by performing quite the sonic volte-face. Where Peasant was spidery, Beefheart-influenced avant-folk, 2020 is Dawson utilising pop at its most base iteration. Big gaudy major chords smile unsettlingly, whilst the redemptive ‘Jogging’ at one point threatens to spill into ‘Eye of the Tiger’. But where Peasant sounded like 6th century Britain, this album too conjures the sounds you can imagine blaring in the backgrounds of the kitchens, offices and pubs that make up the topography of Dawson’s Britain.
To understand quite why Dawson is such a unique voice, take opening track ‘Civil Servant’. Under lesser writers, the track’s day in the life of a civil servant whose job involves explaining “to another poor soul why it is their disability living allowance will be stopped shortly” would feel like sneering at an easy target; the ‘kick-me’ sign as lyric. Instead, Dawson’s empathy, and his actual proximity to the characters he’s writing about, acts as prophylactic.
The accumulated weight of queasy imagery mounts and mounts; Zoopla, beta blockers, vape shops. Anxiety is pervasive, people have stopped smiling, floods destroy sleepy villages and a local butcher wants you to turn against your neighbour. But listen harder – squint – and look, there’s hope. ‘Fulfilment Centre’ is a ten-minute odyssey through the eyes of a warehouse worker, his alienating, robotic labour underlined by gargling vocoder and repetitive lists of products. But the narrator breaks from his spell and Dawson suggests a revelation. “There’s more,” he sings in reedy falsetto, “there has to be more to life than killing yourself to survive.” And our friend the civil servant? “I refuse to do this filthy work anymore.” He’s screeching, fevered, at breaking point – “Refuse! Refuse! Refuse! Refuse!”.