By Sam Goldner
Richard Dawson sings as if he’s waging a one-man war against all of modern civilization. His broken-down style of English folk music feels like it was beamed in from another time, each frayed blemish possessing an ornate, worn-in beauty. All the missed guitar notes and accidental voice cracks betray an intricate design, a refined musicianship somewhere between the brutal virtuosity of Bill Orcutt and the classical elegance of Joanna Newsom. His paranoid voice booms and rumbles like a doomsday sayer hollering from the side of the road, but if you stop to listen, you’ll hear moving tales of squalor, cruelty, and tenuously held hope.
Though Dawson has regularly reconfigured his music into gnarled, sprawling shapes, he’s gradually sharpened his off-kilter style into something more concise and digestible as the years have gone on. His last two solo albums, Peasant and 2020, were twisted song cycles that chronicled the everyday struggles of characters dwelling in the forgotten underbellies of society. The former took us into the Middle Ages, following stories of grieving beggars and vengeful sex workers facing down the malice of their oppressors; the latter flashed forward to the present day, locating that same desperation in the suffering of Amazon warehouse workers and UFO conspiracy theorists. The Ruby Cord, on the other hand, envisions a distant future dominated by virtual realities, where metropolises have begun to decay while Dawson’s protagonists get lost in worlds of their own design. It’s a looser, more free-associative approach for Dawson—one that still bears his uniquely unsettling touch, even if he seems to lose his own way the further his songs drift into abstraction.
If Dawson’s music has previously hinted at a proggy sense of scale, The Ruby Cord launches it to towering extremes with its gargantuan 41-minute opening track, “The Hermit.” The song’s opening 10 minutes are its most entrancing: Dawson and longtime producer Sam Grant concoct a delicate sway of flowing folk music, as brushed drums, a faintly strummed guitar, and hissing violin strings creak and wobble together in unison like some great old barge about to collapse in on itself. Even as the song picks up steam when Dawson’s voice finally enters 11 and a half minutes in, the track never leaves this simmering mood, gently humming along through a capella passages and pedal-harp-laden bridges as if it really could go on forever.
Of course, with Dawson, the music is always only half of the picture—his lyrics are where his songs come alive, and it’s here where “The Hermit” starts to reveal The Ruby Cord’s lack of focus. Dawson’s propensity for surreal and surprising storytelling has been one of the most powerful elements of his music, his arcane vignettes depicting a fractured portrait of humanity at its most harrowing. Comparatively, “The Hermit” never quite finds itself, spending much of its runtime exercising Dawson’s esoteric wordplay as he describes lush swathes of undisturbed nature populated by “vaporous shafts of a burgeoning sun” and “patchwork meadows labyrinthed with hedgerows.” The tale gains a little momentum once Dawson’s narrator is mysteriously granted the ability to perceive his surroundings in unimaginable detail, being moved to tears over each individual follicle of the bees buzzing by and the mushrooms growing beneath his feet. But just as it seems as if the story is starting to go somewhere as the reality of Dawson’s world begins to crumble around him, the thread trails off into nothingness, and a vague 12-minute choral outro carries the song away into the clouds. As hypnotizing as its headspace can be, the song leaves the distinct impression that somehow, even after 41 minutes, Dawson still hasn’t really taken us anywhere.
The remaining tracks on The Ruby Cord offer more pointed parables, though some reward more than others. “Thicker Than Water” marks the album’s high point, as Dawson suddenly brings us into the middle of some kind of apocalyptic event, singing in his whimpering falsetto of how “at the end/I didn’t really comprehend that I/was saying goodbye for the last time/to all my friends and family.” Carrying the song on his bittersweetly fingerpicked guitar, Dawson pulls the rug out at the very end, as his protagonist returns to the city only to find his parents hooked up to a Matrix-like alternate reality device, his own unconscious body lying motionless next to them. It’s the kind of pit-in-your-stomach reveal Dawson excels at in his finest moments, the tremble in his voice conveying warmth and fear in the same haunted breath.
Elsewhere, Dawson struggles to deliver the same thematic punch, nor the musical inventiveness that’s made his past work feel so original. After “The Fool” opens with a skronking sci-fi stomp straight out of Mad God, it meanders into a fairly generic love story, and Dawson’s acoustic baroque pop fails to bring the song back to the unexpectedness of its intro. Meanwhile, the stately “Museum” paints some pleasant imagery as it follows a gallery tour guide chronicling the human race long after its extinction. Harps spiral as Dawson reads off his exhibit list with a genteel remove: “Throngs of cheering football fans/A doctor crying alone/Riot police beating climate protestors/Babies being born.” It’s never particularly profound, though Dawson’s skills as a bandleader carry some of the slack as he stretches the song past the eight-minute mark with a swelling, chorus-assisted backend.
As ambitious as The Ruby Cord is, its demanding hour-and-a-half runtime never pushes Dawson’s music to places it hasn’t gone before, even if it’s all executed with his typically handwoven sense of craft. The insights feel slightly stunted, as Dawson trades out the pained, everyday compassion that he’s conveyed so deeply in his more earthbound music for dystopian scenarios that can’t quite settle on a clear premise. Dawson’s vision of the future is a grim one, and without the human element that’s made his songs so gut wrenching, The Ruby Cord ends up like a colossal, corroding monument strangely devoid of a soul.
Source: Richard Dawson: The Ruby Cord