Richard Dawson = Robert Wyatt + Sun City Girls + Mark Kozelek
It can be difficult to sell someone on an artist as strange as Richard Dawson—it’s nearly impossible to explain his art without just playing it for someone. And even then, he has shapeshifted so often throughout his career that playing consecutive albums back-to-back might lead to more questions than answers. But if I was selling someone on Dawson, as assigned to do so in reviewing his music, I would tell them that Dawson is the only artist in the world that could go from Medieval-serf-core to Welsh-wizard-futurism to end-of-capitalism-in-middle-class-England-anxiety-rock in three straight releases and have all of them be masterful in their execution. Or, more simply, I would say that you might never encounter an artist as unforgettable as Dawson.
Both in sound and theme, 2020 serves as the middle ground between the medieval setting of 2017’s Peasant and the futuristic explorations of Dawson side group Hen Ogledd’s 2018 album Mogic by settling into a modern, relatable scene. Dawson’s jump into modern sounds creates an album that is musically diverse in a remarkable way that perfectly represents the claustrophobic array of art, media, entertainment and everything that seems to permeate society today.
The opener, “Civil Servant,” is an angular, aggressive anthem about life-sucking day jobs. Dawson cries, “I don’t want to go in to work this morning / I don’t think I can deal with the wrath of the general public.” The song magnificently closes as the guitars, drums and synths continue chugging along heavily, and the narrator quits their job as Dawson reaches a glass-shattering, demonic high-note. “Two Halves” harkens to the bouncy, post-punk of the early ‘80s. The music of “Jogging” is essentially the soundtrack to sports-movie montages as Dawson allows his stream-of-consciousness lyrical approach to explore a sense of constant anxiety and disdain toward humanity while using exercise to try to better himself. “Heart Emoji” is built from a Tom Waits-esque lounge guitar riff and glimmering electronics.
The two longest songs on the album, “Black Triangle” and “Fulfillment Centre,” are sequenced back to back. The former has the narrator recounting his encounter and subsequent obsession with UFOs—he even has a YouTube channel dedicated to it—over sharp electronics and trudging guitars and drums. The latter is a wandering, crushing portrait of someone working to death (both figuratively and literally) in a factory fulfilling orders from an online marketplace.
While the music itself stands out, it’s the funny and distressing stories and cultural commentaries Dawson weaves into his lyrics that shine the brightest. There’s a Joycean quality to 2020 as we follow alongside Dawson’s world of characters as they experience the minutiae of British mundanity. To offer a glimpse, Dawson takes us through narratives of dejection after messing up on the soccer pitch, xenophobic butchers and chocolate lab-owning vape shop employees outside flooding bars, spousal infidelities that lead to the deaths of slugs, training for the London marathon, homelessness, divorce and an entire world’s worth more.
Scattered throughout these tales are some of the most memorable, hysterical lyrical moments of the year, and picking favorite lines is incredibly difficult from such a gold mine; however, to highlight a few unmissable spots: Dawson commenting that, “I thought I caught a busker sneak an ugly word into ‘Wonderwall’ as I went by,” as well as him thinking of a coworker, “I dream of bashing his skull into a brainy pulp with the sellotape dispenser.” Also, it is inherently funny hearing lists of random objects like “Nintendo Wiis,” “Onesies” and “Snooker Cues” being sung so earnestly.
2020 continues Dawson’s outstanding streak of immense, odd work—he is a category of musician all his own—virtuosic, wacky, witty and ever-evolving. Every trip into Dawson’s impeccably crafted multiverse is astonishing and bizarre—an experience one can only get from Newcastle’s great bard of the Avant-garde (Britain’s avant-bard). Have I sold you? –Evan Welsh