Richard Dawson Peasant

[Weird World; 2017]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: folk prophecy, village drunk, Dickensian cruelty
Others: Shirley Collins, Joanna Newsom, the Black Death



What could spur an album like Peasant in 2017? The kind of knotty, shattered folk music that Newcastle’s Richard Dawson has been trading in over the past several years calls back to any number of eras, be it pre-medieval Europe, the United States’s Reconstruction Era, Victorian England, or even the New Weird America movement of the past several decades, but what can be certain is that Dawson’s music is entrenched in the past. His melodies draw unmistakably from classical English folk, the sort of thing you don’t really hear in public these days unless you venture over to your local Renaissance fair, and yet his approach also carries a distinctly modern sort of individualism. Notes ring flat, wood creaks and gives, and Dawson hollers at his lungs’ absolute breaking point as he creates a kind of folk music that the average passerby would likely deem the ramblings of an insane man. If folk music is truly supposed to be the music of the people, how is it that it can sound so hopelessly isolated, so mired in confusion and dread and violence?

Peasant is Dawson’s most direct, nuanced, and haunting creation yet, a frayed tapestry of a community in peril, where each is left to their own struggles, their own prejudices, their own inflictions of cruelty from a universe that seems designed to rot us from within. Where Dawson’s previous offerings constituted exciting building blocks, whether it was in the intimate notebook sketches of The Magic Bridge, the surrealist structures of The Glass Trunk, or the ambling epics of Nothing Important, Peasant pulls every strand of Dawson’s work together to create something that might actually resemble accessible songwriting were it not so contorted by its own filthy humanity. It is utterly unique music, reminiscent perhaps of the complex, gnarled story-songs purveyed by Mayo Thompson and Joanna Newsom, but taken to much darker, more physical extremes. In all of Peasant’s insularity, it is a surprisingly universal pageant, dipping into the kinds of pain and yearning that are just as relevant today as they were a thousand years ago.

The narrative of Peasant dashes between various figures in Dawson’s societal dollhouse, each of whom is visited upon by grave and threatening powers beyond their control. “Soldier” and “Prostitute” are humbling portraits of their titular characters, two souls trapped within a violent and perpetual cycle of estrangement and subjugation. Dawson’s imagery is nightmare-inducing, dredging up tableaus that are at once elegant and theatrical, yet brutally, heart-sinkingly real (as the “Prostitute,” Dawson moans in childhood memory: “I’ll never forget the scene/ Where the freckled jowels contort across my father’s face/ And disappear under the wheels of the cart”). Though these two pieces culminate in surprisingly hopeful moments of perseverance and freedom, not all of Dawson’s subjects fare so well. The gut-tearingly beautiful “Beggar” tells of a companionship between a panhandler and his trusted collie, describing the searing guilt the poor man feels as he finds himself unable to provide for his friend as her health declines (“I sold my shoes so I could buy a chicken/ A penance and a treat on her final day/ Now she is gone, I carry her down to the sea/ And scream at the sinking stars/ Can you ever forgive me?”) As in our world, Dawson’s beggar is made to answer for his own unforgiving lot in society, the punishment and loathing as self-inflicted as it is by the world around him.

Although these kinds of stabbing critiques lend Peasant a heavily political air, Dawson’s grotesque fairy tales also carry a childlike sense of imagination to them. Mysterious songs like “Hob,” which is about a family seeking help from a shadowy creature to cure their newborn’s illness, possess all the fear and mysticism of a Brothers Grimm tale, simultaneously tender, warm, and frighteningly tangible. Dawson matches these unnerving fantasies by filling his songs with playfully ramshackle arrangements, bringing bright colors to the dreary subject matter with warlike hand percussion (“Scientist”), ghostly violin scratches (“Shapeshifter”), and an ascending chorus of singers that bring songs like “Ogre” and “Weaver” to dreamy, unsettling climaxes. These are thoroughly composed pieces, and even in spite of Dawson’s many unhinged guitar fills and moments of sonic unspooling, Peasant has all the crafted immediacy of a grand stage musical, a psychotic theater in the round boiled down to its barest elements and left to ferment in a dusty Geordie attic for a couple centuries or so.

For all of Peasant’s references to a bygone age, for all of its intense displays of vulnerability and flaw, it must come back to that first question: what could spur music so arcane in an age such as this? Richard Dawson may be an eccentric, but Peasant is far more than just a warped slice of esoterica. These songs pull deeply from the murky cauldron of history, illustrating a sickness at the heart of our species that manifests in any number of shapes while always maintaining its same basic essence. In preparing this diorama, Dawson has tackled the world we live in from a hawk’s eye view, casting each of us as brief vignettes in the larger story of a behemoth that continues to devour itself. However, none of us feel like simple vignettes — we are each a richer patchwork of longing and pain, a compendium of faults shouting out to one another as loudly as we possibly can, our pleas for understanding only dooming us to appear even more insane in the eyes of those around us. But this insanity is all of ours to share, and our cruel mistakes leave tracks in the mud that can never be fully buried, no matter the years that may pass in their wake. And there, in the clearing; a great beast.

Eureka!

Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.

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