After a year of almost exclusively listening to the 2014 Richard Dawson oddball opus Nothing Important, I spent a long weekend in the singer-songwriter’s hometown of Newcastle. Part getaway, part pilgrimage, I entered the world of his songs, and a physical reality began to route the landmarks that littered his social realism. This experience induced a reverse Paris syndrome, in which further depth was added to the rich tapestry of Dawson’s first-person character studies. Places and institutions that had once existed only on central track ‘The Vile Stuff’s lyric sheet were brought to life on road signs and metro maps; Featherstone Castle, Haltwhistle Hospital, Tynemouth College.
Being in Newcastle further imposed the understanding that Dawson’s songwriting is entrenched in location and specificity. The mundane is skewered as settings familiar to us (childhood bedrooms, chip shops and high street stationers) are used as canvases for revelations. Banal environs house memories that cycle through the psyche, haunting and reminding one of past indiscretions. Onto the canvas of a geographical normality mini epiphanies are surfed and heartbreaks are endured. His last album 2020 told of relationships developing in the O2 Carling Academy, of despair being barely concealed in an Amazon Fulfilment Centre and of playing Call of Duty to escape the “seething viper’s nest” of a loathed office environment.
Off the back of 2020 arrives The Ruby Cord, Dawson’s seventh LP, and the final part of a trilogy that began with 2017’s Peasant, continued with the aforementioned 2020, and here concludes.
Set in a pre-medieval era Peasant challenged the aphorism that the past is a foreign country, where things are done differently. Although the landscape was indeed foreign, the album showed that things were done then much as they are now. Old professions were used allegorically to show how past trials and tribulations are equally valid today. Take ‘Scientist’ for example, where the title character’s scientific developments are plainly rejected, the chorus that greets them (“We do not require the use of your abandon”) eerily parallelled Michael Gove’s pronouncement that we have had enough of experts. Here the universal was moulded from material that initially appeared archaic.
Whilst Peasant looked back, The Ruby Cord looks forwards. On the former, previously bygone intolerances were shown as alarmingly evergreen; on the latter, we’re situated some 500 years in the future, where parallels are drawn to the modern day through the fugue of its alien setting. As the album progresses its warped, futuristic landscape begins to bear striking similarities to our own epoch.
Inspired by video games, and the glitches inherent in them, the fundamental setting of this record is disturbed. Its location is seen through the lens of virtual reality, but the reality within has become virtually unidentifiable. On ‘Thicker Than Water’ a journeying character travels home, but is met by deserted towns that are “now desolate capillaries of stone”. The once bustling buildings now stand as gravestones, doing little more than symbolising a life once led. As the journey continues the character finds the house they once called home, yet here lie the corpses of the narrator’s parents, and shockingly the dead body of the narrator themselves. Agog they rip off their goggles and “smash the screen” but the nightmare continues.
Closing track ‘Horse & Rider’ has the narrator ask their companion if they know “There’s no way back / To the world from which she was born? And that the only way out / Is forward and down”. Necessary conflict in a classic narrative structure perhaps, but set against a terrain that is deceptively bucolic the line takes on a different hue. Dawson has explained that The Ruby Cord’s natural landscape initially appears to adhere to a “slow rural dream”, but eventually “the picture… (begins) to go slightly wrong”. This eerie scenery of deserted splendour appears to be an apparition and a consequence of environmental collapse. ‘Museum’ describes exhibits of “distant memories”; one of which being “riot police beating climate protests”. In The Ruby Cord’s reality such protest is redundant; the climate is now a fabrication.
‘Museum’s’ “archive of futility” depicts holograms of the folk who led the quotidian lives depicted in 2020. The “throngs of football fans” and “shoppers idly flicking through clothes” are now but a “distant memory”, their lives are nothing more than curios to be observed; who is left to gaze upon these artefacts is left unsaid. As with many of the songs on The Ruby Cord, this landscape reveals itself to be barren and uninhabited.
Against the loss of civilization comes the advent of futuristic technologies. “A bounty of data” is reachable at the “merest flick of a lash”, yet these gains bring scant consolation. As ‘The Fool’ would have it, the only force that necessitates survival is love, a force “older than the sun” and thus an anachronism in a world shaped by the need for constant evolution.
As is probably apparent, The Ruby Cord’s lyrical world is cast in tropes recurrent in imagined dystopias and science fiction. There’s an obvious absurdity to proceedings but Richard Dawson’s sheer conviction encourages the listener to take these leaps of faith. In other hands ‘The Fool’s’ tale of an ill fated, seasonal romance, set in a world populated by “cross-eyed juveniles” who navgate “flyboats”, and wander “almshouse catacombs” would be a stretch too far. But Dawson’s giddying vocals are allowed to joyride through octaves as the assonance of this rich language is revelled in. Furthermore these pieces of time tourism invariably showcase his great gift for storytelling.
‘The Fool’ begins by depicting its central character as someone oft seen through the lens of “prisming beer”; the performative absurdity that follows this drunken revelry is a strain but a concession made to garner popularity. The first verse unexpectedly meditates on the social pressures often unwillingly assumed by a heavy drinker, revealing a nuanced and empathetic take. One can’t help but recall the references to alcohol in ‘The Vile Stuff’; in that song, a younger character relents to the pressures of teenage binge drinking so as to socially assimilate and here, this social pressure has led to a fractious relationship with the self, done in order to make quick companionships. “I play the role of the fool… / to the newly arrived here / not as I am but how they prefer”.
Whilst lyrically these tracks are very much akin to the other two thirds of this trilogy, sonically there’s a clear departure from 2020. Largely gone are the bombastic multi-instrumental work-outs, and back is the more tonally consistent and limited palette of Peasant. 2020 expanded Dawson’s fanbase with killer singles and an endearingly wonky take on a spirited brand of prog-pop, and if such a thing as ‘crossover appeal’ still exists then after 2020 Dawson was primed for it. The Ruby Cord however, begins in the most uncompromising fashion imaginable, with a track the length of most albums.
To say patience is required of a 40-minute song seems fairly obvious, but from the off it’s utterly gorgeous, starting with a lengthy passage of ebbing and flowing instrumental free-form folk that gently undulates. The likes of No Neck Blues Band (or more recently Caroline) are brought to mind as freshly-tuned instruments begin a tentative conversation with one another. Dawson’s guitar is paired with Angharad Davies’s violin, the harp of Rhodri Davis and Andrew Cheetham’s drums, and together they create a delicate nest of interwoven parts that float gracefully for 11 minutes before the arrival of the singer’s unmistakable vocals.
After the dawn delicacy of the song’s beginning a more menacing prevailing part takes over. Here a characteristically knotty vocal melody cycles around as if chasing its own tail, then a flurry of energy is contrasted with a moment of clarity, as all instruments drop out and the words being sung are acapella. Dawson regularly starts his live sets with an unaccompanied voice, but to allow this to happen (twice) for extended periods on one song seems especially daring. It’s captivating and leads perfectly to the track’s glorious finale. Haunted, and akin to the muted majesty of Low, a repeated refrain is repeated with layered vocals in harmony. It’s beautiful and desolate too; thus pairing itself perfectly to the landscape that’s being described.
Sonically, The Ruby Cord expands into an endless vista, while lyrically it takes our most human desires and places them further than our current reality into a setting that’s mired in an unease that won’t shift. Over this trilogy of records, location and time has shifted but the hopes and fears of the characters within are every bit as real as the places that formed ‘The Vile Stuff’s psychogeography.
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