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.