Willie Reviews Richard Dawson’s “2020”

Willie Reviews Richard Dawson’s “2020”


Trusted bard Richard Dawson has the courage to see into the present-future and pull out its most incongruous, unsettling parts. 2020 is here now. RPM’s review:

The world of Richard Dawson’s 2020 is a depopulated nightmare full of all our fears and suspicions. Worse, we can envision exactly what that future looks like. Even worse, 2020 rolls around in a few short weeks, and nothing significant will likely happen between now and then. And so we find ourselves sinking into 2020 in 2019. The world of the future has everything, so why are we so collectively sad? Dawson suggests that we are sleepwalking and thinking ourselves into a hole. The jagged lines piled up on the cover of the record are a mess of anxious individuals bumping into each other at random. Setting this absurd situation to music requires Britain’s most interesting bard (and my number one pick to score a modern setting of The Wicker Man). He pulls in a messy web of listeners by singing relentlessly in the first person, spinning stories that are too bizarre to come from one man’s life,  but too important to ignore.

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One of Dawson’s biggest areas of focus is the intersection of work and leisure. In his songs, the two forces are at odds, and desperately so. The two head-on confrontations of work are “Civil Servant” and “Fulfilment Centre.” The first takes the old story of a tired government employee and pits it against the dreary consequences of their employment. This civil servant is not just tired of work, they are exhausted by having to “explain to another poor soul why it is their Disability Living Allowance will be stopping shortly.” You cannot separate the cog from the machine though the cog wants to play Call of Duty and sit at home. Guilt infects this individual, despite their being at the very bottom of the power ladder. “Fulfilment Centre” brings another, more dire twist to the “tired of work” genre. This Amazon warehouse employee says “There has to be / More to life than killing yourself to survive / One day, I’m going to run my own cafe / Ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh, ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh.” I’m not sure who transcribed those lyrics, but there is no better translation of the existential dread than four long ahhs. Dawson’s voice is insistent and strong, but carries the weakness that comes with constant beatdowns.

It follows, then, that songs of leisure are not leisure proper. “Jogging” is at once an affecting portrait of mental health and an invective against the self-improvement industry. It seems to be the most autobiographical of the tracks, dropping concrete details about starting to run. But the circumstances surrounding it are cruel and random. The speaker grinds on with effort, knowing that their anxiety might never stop altogether. Jogging consists of “hundreds of miles going nowhere” and the song drops into digressions that reveal the truer context, like “It’s lonely up here in Middle England” and “I feel the atmosphere / ‘Round here is growing nastier.” The work of self-improvement is unpaid, typically  unsuccessful, and still not a means of escape from every awful concurrent problem. The more you run, the more things come into focus, and they’re not great. “Two Halves” details a game of soccer as a great chase. The constant “man on!” refrain calls to mind surveillance and the continuation of mindless running to distract yourself and others from your private life.

Richard Dawson - Jogging (Official Video)

When I call Dawson’s world depopulated, I mean that the spaces he sings about seem devoid of people—a physical manifestation of the metaphorical emptiness he hints at. The empty stands of “Two Halves” place leisure in a vacuum, and “The Queen’s Head” tells the story of a flood and how absent the protagonist feels within an almighty moment, one that should draw the community together. As the great flood comes and destroys their pub, all they can do is look around and see folks emerging from their homes to help. It doesn’t warm the heart, however. The pub owner surveys the wreckage and decides “How little we are, clung to the river’s edge / Come hell or high water, how little we are.” The unwavering support of the community helping to clean the mud out of the way is certainly not enough.

In all these songs, Dawson’s mode is to tell the story of the “I” because it’s comprehensible and urgent. These are stories told for the benefit of those concerned with the self and suddenly lacking basic empathy. Only by Dawson’s insistence on the “I” can we see these as urgent parables. The guitar work is the best I’ve ever heard from Dawson, and the sheer abandon he brings lights the songs on fire. The acoustic sound of Peasant is there, but it’s often replaced by the screeching tones and freeform structures of Robert Wyatt. It’s easy to tap into Dawson’s erratic themes because he always keeps time and the narrative never stops, not even for a second.

Score: Songs to sing yourself after getting home from work at the store factory.