Following the hailed release of his bristly concept album Peasant in 2017, Richard Dawson, our favourite bard of the Northeast of England, is back with 2020, an unflinching response to its time which zooms in on everyday life in Brexit-flogged, anxiety-ridden Britain. Fusing his trademark gallows humour and no-frills arrangements with wacky 80s-style sound effects and serious undertones, 2020 doesn’t whitewash a thing as it takes a step away from Dawson’s folk persona into a darker world where ‘the atmosphere is growing nastier’ (as he sings on Jogging).
The opening track, Civil Servant, hits you right in the face with its grimy guitars and distorted nursery rhyme melody. It’s a South Park-tongued ode to a bureaucrat who struggles to balance his duties with his blank hatred for his job – when Dawson’s ominous but endearing falsetto coos, ‘I dream of bashing his skull into a brainy pulp with a Sellotape dispenser’, the humour comes with a grave price. The epic drumbeats and warrior-like chorus on The Queen’s Head echo Peasant’s medieval flair while exposing the mayhem in a small British town after a flood hits in. Two Halves is deceptively upbeat as it depicts how terribly serious parents take their kids’ football games – ‘stop fannying around’ and ‘pass the bloody ball’ is the dad’s useless advice to his son. Jogging tackles ugly truths like rising social anxiety, employment issues, police incompetence and racism as Dawson’s persona starts jogging ‘100s of miles going nowhere’ to get his life together. The song moves from the personal to the public as it clambers along a simplified beat and 80s-style wheehoos and distorted voices that squawk ‘jogging, jogging’.
The sudden change to a gentler, head-bobbing rhythm for Heart Emoji feels hilariously ominous with Dawson’s purr commenting on how we express emotions on social media. Black Triangle is one of my favourites, a perfect soundtrack, with Queen-style vibes, to you taking a solitary stroll around a supermarket car park of your choice and feeling in the know. The bold rhythm changes juggle many different moods with audacity and gives you a fantastic electric guitar theme and wacky sound effects that could come straight out of Super Mario. Swift mood changes are also packed into Fulfilment Centre, a heavily experimental but entertaining track that dazzles with warped oriental passages, a stripped-down guitar mantra and wobbly sound effects before it nips your laughter in the bud with lines like, ‘there’s more/ There has to be/ More to life than killing yourself to survive’. And suddenly there’s Fresher’s Ball, the only clearly folky song on the album that rips your heart with its raw and unabashed candour of a dad realising that his daughter is actually grown up now. Following a short experimental track called No One, 2020 closes on a less jokey note with Dead Dog in an Alleyway, a sobering take on homelessness in Britain that generates energy but gets your teeth into the mud.
If you live in the UK today and don’t walk around blind-folded, there’s no way you can’t find yourself in Richard Dawson’s world of ubiquitous Wetherspoons, vape shops, cut benefits, expensive degrees and social anxiety. Coated in humour but steeped in contemporary misery, 2020 is an album about survival in nasty times and it fizzes in your mouth like a sherbet. Its serious undertone makes it less suitable to blast out from your speakers, but it’s a masterful take on the s**t that’s going down in Britain. Get your headphones on and go for a walk before you head down to Spoons tonight.
2020 is out on 11th October, via Domino Records. Additionally, Dawson will be touring the UK until March 2020 and will be playing Edinburgh’s The Caves on 26th November and Glasgow’s CCA on 27th November.