- Richard Dawson @ The Gate
- Date: Wednesday 03/05/2023
- Time: 7.00pm
- Price: £20
- Age Restrictions: 16+
- Venue: The Gate
Northumbrian contemporary folk artist Richard Dawson beautifully blends together shambolic folklore, jazzy psych-folk, and, progressive rock to create a sound that is distinct, yet constantly evolving.
Richard Dawson – The Ruby Cord (Lanre Bakare)
Pop in your earpiece, close your eyes and embrace the wonders (and horrors) of augmented reality and prepare to travel 500 years into the future as Richard Dawson returns with … The Ruby Cord.
The new album is – perhaps – the final part of a trilogy that started with the pre-medieval world of Peasant, was brought back to the present day with 2020 and – possibly – concludes in the future with Dawson’s seventh (or is it sixth?) studio album. After recent collaborations with Finnish metal innovators Circle and his work with Hen Ogledd, this is a return to Dawson’s own world with seven tracks that plunge us into an unreal, fantastical and at times sinister future where social mores have mutated, ethical and physical boundaries have evaporated… a place where you no longer need to engage with anyone but yourself and your own imagination. It’s a leap into a future that is well within reach, in some cases already here.
While 2020 dealt in social realism with explorations of testy football matches, the fallacy of work-life balance and therapeutic forms of repetitive exercise, The Ruby Cord shakes off the limitations of so-called real life and delves headlong into a (sort of) sci-fi world where human society has collapsed and morphed into something distinctly less solid. “So many of us are moving into these fantasy worlds,” says Dawson. “Whether it’s actual constructed virtual realities, computer worlds, or retreating into even more fantastical realms…. conspiracy theories, nationalism, amateur football punditry. People construct their own world because this one is so flawed.”
Written during 2019, throughout 2020 and finished in 2021 – the lyrics to most of the record were conceived throughout the various Covid-19 lockdowns, as the side effects of isolation and state-imposed inwardness affected millions around the world. In that setting, tensions in the UK rose, people showed both altruism and selfishness, and the world got a whole lot more difficult to comprehend. Dawson wanted to move away from the “on-the-nose” directness of 2020 and bring down a layer of “fog” over proceedings, masking meanings that are there for those who care to delve just a bit deeper.
Opening track The Hermit meanders its way through more than eleven and a half minutes of gentle instrumental burble before the story of a loner living in a bucolic dreamworld cracks into life. Here the idea of a fantastical alternate universe slides into view from the perspective of someone waking in the forest of a constructed video game domain. This is Dawson’s most ambitious work thus far, taking the epic storytelling of 2014’s The Vile Stuff and stretching the limits even further into a 40-minute mood piece that acts as the gateway to the rest of The Ruby Cord. As with Peasant and 2020, The Ruby Cord was recorded with Pigs x7’s Sam Grant at Blank Studios in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and the mantra that emerged with The Hermit was “what happens if we push on a bit further?”. Joined by regular collaborators Rhodri Davies, Angharad Davies, and drummer Andrew Cheetham the answer to the question is: possibly Dawson’s best songwriting yet.
Despite its futuristic setting, Dawson is still tackling contemporary issues. In this near-future, the fantasy world that some people live in looks incredibly like Old England or mythic Albion. But what happens if there’s a glitch in this virtual world that turns a pastoral scene into one of dread? “The initial idea I had was of somebody thinking they are just walking around in some rural, Old England and that this is such a nice idea, taking in all of the spectacular nature of the British countryside, the slow rural dream, it’s peaceful and lovely but then things just start to go slightly wrong with the picture,” says Dawson. “Like when you play video games, sometimes something glitches and it makes something happen that’s really bizarre and disturbing.”
“I remember playing Skyrim,” recalls Dawson. “Sometimes you’d get characters submerged in paths, which is incredible to see.” Those “glitches” are strange enough in a computer game but what about when they occur in the spaces we inhabit? “It’s just inescapable that there’s going to be glitches and things going wrong and then people won’t be able to control the narrative of their own story,” he adds. It’s a stark image, at a time when nationalists around the world are encouraging people to buy into fantasy versions of countries that never actually existed but only they can return us to.
Dawson hasn’t played a video game since Last of Us: Part Two, but its influence touched The Ruby Cord. “It’s kind of a broken world,” he says. “That game is informed by a lot of things but definitely our times and all the current worries, particularly environmental concerns.” Other influences include the Japanese duo Nagisa Ni Te with their slow, Neil Young-inspired folk-pop and the drawn-out compositions of Robert Ashley. “I love how gentle Nagisa Ni Te are, quietly and slowly forceful without rushing or pushing.”
Thicker Than Water begins to reveal the darker side of this augmented near-future. The song takes place in Northumberland, or somewhere like it, where the residents have moved online and the only discernible lifeforms are quarrelling magpies. A figure traipses through fields “asway with phantoms of wheat” eventually reaching an abandoned city where haunting “laughter resounds from the shells of every shop, every pub, every school, every home” as he searches for the lifeless bodies of his parents, the family dog and… himself. Can this new world replace the richness of reality and defy the finality of death? All the album’s songs move and shift between the real world and a future augmented reality of lived-in game-like spaces. It’s difficult to moor yourself to any kind of solid ground.
The Fool continues down a similar path with a pair of lovers who meet “at the end of a skull-lined avenue in the almshouse catacombs” where they realise, movingly but tragically, that “Love is old, older than the sun … a dreadful magic more powerful than evil” during the song’s beautiful but queasy end-refrain. On Museum we find ourselves in a space where eerie projections or holograms stalk the halls and include one of “riot police beating climate protestors”, as Dawson subtly reminds us this haunted future is also our far-from-perfect present.
The Tip of An Arrow explores what the childish instinct of “playing shop” might develop into in 500-years’ time. “I like the idea of what that would look like in a very technologically developed future,” says Dawson. “I should think that instinct would still survive for a child.” The result sees Isagog and her mother Temperance go on a “strange fantasy adventure” that musically moves between chugging metal, Sun Ra-esque off-kilter jazz and the more reflective sounds of Rhodri Davies’ harp playing.
Then comes something familiar: another penultimate track called No-one; another intriguing instrumental that now looks like some form of cosmic aural tissue holding the three albums together (a red thread leading out of the maze?)
Finally, album closer Horse and Rider takes a horse’s POV of a nighttime gallop over “weedburst motorways” that swells into the most triumphant moment on the album as the final refrain “Over unseen churning seas we go / Neverending passage through the cold and dark” repeats as The Ruby Cord runs its course. In Dawson’s hands the promise of a fragmented virtual future, full of fractured utopian visions and endlessly flawed human possibilities becomes one of melancholy yearning and – perhaps even more strangely – hope.
Lanre Bakare, Mile End – Summer 2022