Richard Dawson Peasant (2017)
The first thing that one notices in Richard Dawson’s guitar playing (which he claims is as important as the voice), is that it sounds exactly like Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. His phrasing’s odd but his dexterity shines when he lets it, and furthermore his bum-notes ring to open new and unexpected avenues rather than just ending there as prickly avant-gardeisms. Whether this music is ‘ritual community music’ or avant-garde is something that Dawson never wants us to know exactly, and precisely what makes his work so excellent. Any interview will show him conflicted, explaining how he’s learned those riffs through playing sludge metal, how those Orcutt and Bailey excursions are him studying Orcutt and Bailey, how he puts coins in his acoustic because he studied the recording of the person who did it first, and so on, but smiling fully like it all just came together. The compulsion to be rough and make-pretend commonsense in order to capture and interrogate a national consciousness is commonplace across all the arts (it’s probably something to do with performative masculinities and circumnavigating a fear of the cultural/intellectual elite in order to get a point across (would people have listened to what Springsteen had to say about transgender rights if he was not also ‘The Boss’?)), but it is curious when the artist is resoundingly avant-garde.
Virginia Woolf obsessed over Joyce, or specifically her repulsion caused by Joyce, and reading her private and public vitriol reads a lot like the self-image pushed by Dawson, ‘self-taught working man,’ ‘raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating,’ ‘illiterate and underbred,’ ‘a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’ (lol). For all Woolf’s classist and racist contempt, there is the sense that she is frustrated by not being able to understand if she’s reading a genius, a hillbilly, or a genius pretending to be a hillbilly. This of course is by design. Economist Galenson later articulated two motivations for creation: experimentation and conceptualism. Experimental artists look for answers through making, while conceptual artists start with an idea to be proved through the work. Experimental artists are always ‘becoming’, with their best works yet to come, while conceptual artists tend to run out of steam (see for example the post-Cubist career of Pablo Picasso). Dawson’s first album was called Sings Songs and Plays Guitar which now seems like a red herring, though in truth The Magic Bridge and everything before it was a song suite, and The Glass Trunk worked as a series of experiments stemming from a clear conceptual framework. Since then it’s been wholly concept, from idea to execution.
Galenson’s framework is reductive and daft as it is helpful- many have pointed out that it is context that motivates creation and not individuals working in a vacuum, but it is still a tidy way of appreciating the fundamentally searching quality of one artist’s work as well as the rougher and more argumentative qualities of a contemporary. It’s also a nice thing to consider before setting out to make something, although one can always feel the push and pull of ‘idea in head’ and ‘where this execution is taking me’. Dawson’s work arrives at concepts through years of study and experimentation, which makes it more organic than disruptive, and offers the benefit of being both meticulously constructed and feeling like a work in progress- as good as this all is, his best work is certainly still to come. With Nothing Important the concept was the responsibility of individuals, and now this time it’s collective responsibility. Why in turbulent times someone would make an album set in the medieval period is plain enough- to return to Joyce, History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. For Dawson and Joyce, history is a nightmare that is happening- there is no then and now because they constantly inform one another, and the best we can do is remember the horrors that have occurred while recognising our responsibility to lives lost and lives to come. It’s a sincere work which leaves no room for jaded cynicism or political conservatism. History and community are for Dawson sites of erasure, nationalistic grand narratives, and barbarism, until they become reflexive and at that point they have the potential to become revolutionary.
Not that I will ever share in the (erroneous) ‘they used to make albums, not songs!’ rhetoric that lends itself to rockist nostalgia, much less call for an outright return to the pompous concepts of yesteryear, but Richard Dawson is one of very few artists working that can make a release feel like a gift to the audience rather than content existing just to generate content. In all likelihood the next one’ll be a new set of experiments, and this’ll continue to feel momentous. Like Johnnie To or Yeezy there’s an unsettledness to the artist that makes them vital, and also a generosity that leaves things in full clarity for us to hold onto and fixate over. Of course made under a restless spirit it’s an event in some ways, but mostly like an actual gift that we are grateful for and can warm up to and enjoy and fall out with and apologise to and learn from. Nauseating and pimply, its covert intellectualism guides its big fat emotions to bigger realisations- Joyce said with vast readership that he wanted to write ‘the moral history of my country’ (did I nick that comparison from someone on here?), and Dawson, humbly as singer of songs and player of guitar, takes this to heart. However much he tries to lead us off Joyce by citing the ruddy peasant world-paintings of Bruegel, we catch him in the act taking from both and doing more.
The average reviews on here are genuinely upsetting, not because I disagree with what they have to say, but because they aren’t really saying anything at all. Because here’s what this is, Peasant is a new old work by someone who plays the bard and talks shit and goes off in private to study everything until his brain’s mangled and his fingers are bleeding, not because he’s stuffy like a perfectionist, but because he believes in everything that came before him one hundred percent and he believes in what he’s doing right now maybe even more, because he’s channeling it all towards something that’ll improve things, because he wants to improve things, ’cause he cares where we came from just as much as where we’re going next. He cares where we are right now, because right now’s heading in both directions at once and that makes us responsible here and now to both. And more important than everything I’ve said is this thing which leaves visible all the smudges and cracks of the author’s hand, and but which yearns to transcend its own mundane origins- it’s not Dawson’s, it is ours and everyone else’s in it, and there are lives and stories and whole worlds in this thing that we owe it to listen to, hard as that might be when the sun’s dying and all sense of the world is lost. But that’s the thing- it’s ours.