This is art shorn of artifice, pop against populism, and it just so happens to be one of the defining statements of our times.
Richard Dawson’s new album is called 2020. Knowing what we do about the way Dawson’s unique songwriting brain works, it’s tempting to surmise that it’s going to be a near-future concept album about an England almost identical to our own, but with the weirdness and woe condensed in that forthright Dawsonian manner we’ve come to expect. And in a way this is true. The songs on 2020 describe the inner lives of normal individuals in a country on the cusp of something vaguely unpleasant, something black and looming that has just appeared over the horizon. Dawson’s songs alchemise widespread political and social anxieties into pinpoint vignettes; ostensibly mundane concerns are conjured into startling focus.
A new Richard Dawson song is always a surprise, however familiar you are with his work. His voice, rich with the resonance of a north-eastern accent, is always the focal point, and the lyrics and both conversational and confessional but always loaded with gravitas. But 2020’s biggest surprise comes in the way its songs are set. Earlier Dawson solo albums worked mostly within a folk framework, a musical vernacular that seemed to mesh perfectly with the storytelling element of the songs. But on Jogging, 2020’s lead single, it is clear that Dawson has shifted his focus. Jogging is a pop song. A very strange pop song, full of bulldozer guitars, industrially synthesised vocals, strings that are simultaneously massive and subtle and a pounding beat (it’s like the soundtrack to a montage scene in a Rocky film directed by Ken Loach), but a pop song nonetheless. And it is representative of the optimism and anger of the album’s lyrical trajectory – an anxiety-ridden narrator drags himself away from numbing, agoraphobic internet binges in an attempt to exercise his way back to a better state of mental health, while around him England slowly crumbles: a Kurdish family’s window gets bricked, a busker slips a curse into Wonderwall (that most pointlessly optimistic of dirges), the atmosphere carries a vague but growing threat. Running, for the narrator, provides a means of escape from a kind of hell, but it is temporary and fleeting. This is the state of Dawson’s England: individuals are necessarily preoccupied with holding back the tides of personal self-doubt and unhappiness, while those unseen forces meant to keep the country in good shape are singularly failing.
The guy in Jogging is winning, in a small way. He is learning to take care of himself in a society where care has become an afterthought. And the idea of care – of the need for people to look after one another, particularly when the state-controlled system of ‘welfare’ has been eroded beyond inadequacy – is central to many of Dawson’s songs. Two Halves, in which a junior footballer fears the wrath of his dad after costing his team victory, documents a flawed but tender father-son relationship. It touches on the difficulties men and boys experience in terms of the way they express affection, particularly in masculine-centric working-class societies, and also on the inherent competitiveness of those societies. The chorus – a war-cry of ‘man on, man on’, conveys the thrilling importance of a football match in the park, and so much more.
As always, Dawson is a master of juxtaposition and the cinematic jump-cut. The album’s opening track, Civil Servant, observes the national plight from the perspective of one of the nameless employees tasked with processing human failure and sadness on a personal level. The causes of absenteeism, workplace stress, mental illness, issues of productivity – the vicious circle of contemporary working life – are examined in rigorous and unflinching detail. It’s a song that should be blasted into the offices of anyone who works at manager-level or upwards in the public sector. Musically, various guitar parts in a range of styles (from hard rock to jaunty electric folk) line up and jostle for position, and the song ends with an almost operatic flourish, a release of pent-up despair.
The Queen’s Head tells the story of a flooded pub, the smallness of humanity in the face of nature, and the essential goodness of people in a desperate situation. The song succeeds because of the specificity of its lyrical detail – Bags For Life tied round ankles, the guy from the vape shop with his chocolate labradors. The song is maybe the folkiest thing on show here, but the surprise of a wide-eyed synth at the conclusion is classic Dawson juxtaposition. Heart Emoji explores marital infidelity with delicate brutality, while the intro to Black Triangle has elements of Rush, synth-era Who and soft rock before Dawson launches into a tale of a UFO seen over an Aldi car park. His storytelling has a directness and simplicity that somehow coexists alongside an inherent weirdness: there should be no room for interpretation, but instead, the possibilities in these songs seem infinite.
The ten-minute opus Fulfilment Centre sees a narrator – nameless and drained of personality – working for a company – also nameless, but bearing more than a passing resemblance to Amazon. He packs ‘an endless array of tat’, is forced to piss in a bottle and observes his co-workers literally going mad due to the working conditions. All the while a robotic voice reminds him of the need to process ‘three hundred units per hour/hour after hour after hour/please adjust your packing rate accordingly’. It’s terrifying, then funny, then terrifying again.
Dawson’s voice, powerful and cracked, is capable of incredible tenderness. Fresher’s Ball (sung over a bass line that is almost jazzy and, like almost everything on the album, is played by Dawson) gives us a parent’s-eye-view of a daughter’s first day at university, and it is utterly, gut-wrenchingly sad, and Dead Dog In An Alleyway documents a night in the life of a rough sleeper. The song is doubly poignant: the individuality of the protagonist’s plight is rendered in beautiful, shocking detail, while we are left in no doubt that similar scenes occur thousands of times a day up and down the country.
2020 is being presented in some circles as a state-of-the-nation address, an eleventh-hour rallying cry. It is that, and it is more than that. To understand what this album actually means it is perhaps necessary to consider the fundamental aspects of its sound: this is (at times) a pop album, and Dawson’s move to embrace the pop idiom is not, or not always, an ironic one, meant to hold a gaudy and frivolous mirror up to dark and dour times. On the contrary, it is a sincere appeal to optimism, and above all else, sincerity is Dawson’s calling card. This is art shorn of artifice, pop against populism, and it just so happens to be one of the defining statements of our times.