PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Richard Dawson and the Multitudes Contained in Brexit Britain

Photo: Sally Pilkington / Courtesy of Domino

Richard Dawson's 2020 is a coruscating state-of-the-nation piece as Britain faces up to its muddled identity at the end of a tumultuous decade.

Richard Dawson

Domino / Weird World

11 October 2019

Richard Dawson, the socially engaged musician from the northeast of England, is a documenter of people. He might also be called a singer-songwriter, a label that can't possibly contain this ingenious artist. Either way, with his new album 2020, he has produced a coruscating yet somehow beautiful portrait of modern Britain; an indictment of the iniquities of late capitalism; and a stark but compassionate depiction of the antagonism and polarization that gave rise to, and continue to be fuelled by, Brexit.

But primarily he is, to repeat, a documenter of people – and usually through a loving lens. His 2014 album Nothing Important was a journey through the oddballs and eccentrics of his youth in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Meanwhile, in 2017, he released Peasant, a sharp, sad collection of character vignettes based around the sixth-century Anglo Saxon kingdom of Bryneich. He is also part of the band Hen Ogledd, who last year released Mogic, much of which addressed the mysterious and insidious ways that our constructed digital identities blur the lines of personhood.

With 2020, Dawson has applied his stream-of-consciousness narratives to the present day through a series of warm and sympathetic songs that show bewildered characters struggling with socio-political forces beyond their control. Musically, he has conformed a little, utilizing a "conventional" band set-up that flirts with post-rock and new wave, as opposed to the progressive folk of Peasant or the Captain Beefheart-ish experimental guitar of Nothing Important.

Looking on from Australia (and speaking as a displaced semi-Englishman), British society in the last two years has seemed like a melee of ignominious mud-slinging, thinly-veiled racism, political chaos, and confused, unintelligible patriotism. However, if nothing else, 2020 is a much-needed work of art showing that the UK's communities are still rich with thoughtful and sensitive citizens, capable of passions of various kinds and, indeed, of achieving small victories – even if they are suffering all the while.

Take, for example, the track "Fulfilment Centre", a grim 10-minute opus about working in a warehouse for a certain giant, unnamed-but-clearly-identifiable, online retailer. Anyone who has felt the infantilization and dehumanization of working in such a job to survive will relate to the lyrics. "I am desperate for the toilet / But if I go, I'll miss my targets / All I can do is pee in a bottle / They treat us like animals here." The song culminates in a chorus -- "There's nothing left of me by the time I shuffle homeward on the early morning train" -- that compounds the heavy, suffocating repression of such labor.

Another track, "Civil Servant", also addresses the tyranny and invasiveness of the workplace. Here, Dawson creates a character working for a government department in disability services, who, despite struggling with alienation and bullying, still feels a heartfelt responsibility to the "poor souls" they serve. "I don't think I can deal with the wrath of the general public… In my bed, I can hear the strangled voices of the people I've failed." (Much like Nothing Important, 2020 is endlessly quotable.) Unlike "Fulfilment Centre", "Civil Servant" ends with bullish, uplifting defiance, with Dawson's repeated scream of "Refuse!"

A further notable track is "Jogging", which takes place in a more middle-class setting. This person, a graphic designer and former counselor at a school, suffers from anxiety, shies away from interaction, and is somewhat agoraphobic. Dawson, the narrator sings, "I know I must be paranoid / But when I pick up the groceries / One of the girls who works the checkout / Tuts under her breath, and it destroys me for a week." This individual finds peace of mind and emotional balance in jogging, and ends up preparing to run the London Marathon – like in "Civil Servant", the song concludes on a note of self-actualization amid the toxicity of day-to-day living.

This track also features one of the album's portrayals of racism. In "Jogging", the narrator describes a Kurdish family having a brick put through their kitchen window and observes, "The atmosphere around here is growing nastier." Additionally, "The Queen's Head", about a river flooding a pub in Hull, touches on how the blame for social ills falls upon "benefit-scrounging immigrants". These feel like direct references to a culture of exclusion that the Brexit referendum fomented, and the Daily Mail-inspired xenophobia of pockets of middle England. It is to Dawson's credit that these nods to racism and bigotry are hinted at as part of a broader picture of Britain, rather than harped on; he is far from a polemicist.

Other tracks confront different issues. "Dead Dog in an Alleyway" is about homelessness. "Fresher's Ball" about a parent saying goodbye to a child at university. "Two Halves" is one of the more amusing and lighthearted songs on the record, about an overbearing parent watching a child play football. In the diversity of its subject matter, 2020 is a vital state-of-the-nation report from, crucially, neither a member of the political or economic elite or the ideology- and agenda-fuelled media.

Writing for The Guardian recently, the historian David Edgerton described Brexit as a "necessary crisis" and a "long-overdue" audit of British realities'. If that's true, then the art that is emerging from the referendum's ongoing consequences is continuing that audit. Dawson's album is a survey of a nation – not a 'broken' nation as the lazy description goes, but certainly conflicted and unsure of its place in the world. 2020 shows the unbridled heart and potential that exists within this society, even if it is just a civil servant refusing to do the government's administrative bidding or someone with mental health challenges finding respite in exercise.

Dawson toured Australia, where I reside, in 2015 as a guest of the experimental sound organization Liquid Architecture, and his music is frequently aligned with the avant-garde. His record label, Weird World, an offshoot of the larger Domino Records, is home to leftfield, marginal work. Musically, he is an undoubted innovator, but given the subject matter of 2020, he can also be placed, perhaps, in certain literary traditions.

Dawson's songs have been compared with James Joyce (particularly Dubliners, inevitably) and even Chaucer. In its solidarity with the people Dawson sees when he looks immediately around him, there is something of George Orwell to 2020 (though without that author's belligerent opinions). In its vivid description of the draining experience of full-time work, I am reminded of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. Alan Sillitoe's treatment of domesticity and private life also comes to mind. There's even a line to be drawn between Dawson and Bertolt Brecht, given the former's toying with storytelling technique and dramatization of alienation.

In a truly depressing video made by the journalist Owen Jones upon attending the Conservative Party Conference in October, one Tory member describes Brexit as necessary because, "we are different to a lot of European countries, we've got a history of culture, of sovereignty, and it's stronger… ours is very, very strong." As well as being a poor argument for leaving the EU, this seems acutely irrelevant and perhaps offensive when set against the heartfelt efforts, the defeats and humiliations, and the community spirit that Dawson draws on for 2020. He has created a poetic historical artifact that commemorates and mourns these things.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.