Richard Dawson Criticizes Modern Life in “2020”

Richard Dawson poses for promotional photos for his new record, “2020.” Photo courtesy theFader.com.

Prolific English industrial and folk experimentalist Richard Dawson, known for his bizarre and winding experimental records, released his sixth LP, “2020,” after a two-year hiatus for writing and producing the project. In 2015 and 2017 respectively, Dawson released his intensely experimental folk projects “The Glass Trunk” and “Peasant.” “The Glass Trunk,” comprised entirely of acapella segments of yelping, screeching vocals broken up by grating and aggressive acoustic guitar licks, it explored 19th century Britain through research that Dawson had done about Newcastle upon Tyne, his home town in northeast Britain. “Peasant,” meanwhile, explores the same region in the ninth century, trading stories of early industrialism and death for medieval quests, treasures and the harrowing life of middle England.

His newest project, “2020,” shifts Dawson’s narrative focus forward to the present day, depicting a bleak picture of a modern England on the brink of total societal collapse. Dawson’s critiques of the present day run deep; he explores a wide swath of stories and experiences through free verse, chronicling the person-by-person collapse of his nation. And unlike its bizarre and idiosyncratically experimental predecessors, “2020” is a much more accessible, rock-driven entry into Dawson’s discography, and is a perfect starting point for aspiring experimental listeners.

“Civil Servant,” a true musical journey through resounding electric guitars, acoustic interludes, and electronic elements opens the record with a sharp criticism of the modern work landscape. An anthem of disgust towards life in a cubicle, Dawson’s soaring vocals and heavy, often cacophonic instrumentation quintessentially summarizes the message, tone and sound of the record.

“The Queen’s Head” follows the first track with a much more somber, acoustic narrative about a pub owner whose bar floods due to climate change. The chorus sees the owner realizing his place in the world, crying, “come hell or high water, how little we are.”

In fact, Dawson’s storytelling on “2020” is easily his best to date; exploring unique and diverse perspectives, the record makes clear statements about what it wants to discuss without being overt and heavy-handed. “Black Triangle” explores a man whose marriage, job, and life falls apart after he supposedly sees a UFO, but indirectly questions the legitimacy of its own narrative. “Fulfilment Centre” explores the misery and horrors of working in an Amazon shipping warehouse, and offers subversive commentary on the nature of internet purchase culture and Amazon’s questionable employee wellbeing practices. On “Heart Emoji,” Dawson assumes the perspective of a singer who discovers that their partner is cheating on them and constantly upends the listener’s expectations, to increasingly dire results as the track progresses.

“Jogging” is a track so personal, emotional and well-described that it seems unlikely that Dawson didn’t write it about himself. Following a man plagued by anxiety and depression who begins to jog to get exercise, the pain and progression that Dawson explores in the lyrics come through plainly in his voice, which breaks and squeaks as he chokes his way through the blaring choruses.

These tracks slowly build to design Dawson’s holistic vision of England as it is- on the verge of collapse. He sees deep discontent, misery, and pain everywhere he goes, and it shows.

Dawson’s chorus work on “2020” produces a handful of stunning earworm choruses, like on the ambiguous and gut-wrenching “Heart Emoji.”  “Two Halves,” a song about a young child’s soccer game, has a much lighter ending but an equally breathtaking, folk-inspired chorus. The album’s closer, “Dead Dog in and Alleyway,” boasts the irresistible, drum-led chorus which describes London fatalistically as “the labyrinth of neon.”

So too, the record’s musicality also reaches new heights for the artist. In step with his previous projects, Dawson often employs instrumental interludes within songs to expand on the track’s narrative without wasting precious words. The grinding guitars on “Civil Servant” underlie the track’s contempt towards mindless labor of pencil-pushing. The atmospheric, esoteric electronic key notes that underscore the final leg of “The Queen’s Head” signal the singer’s ascent to a place of greater humility. Meanwhile, the yelping interlude on “Black Triangle,” reminiscent of a Black Sabbath-era hair metal screech, and the two-minute instrumental closer to the same track, brilliantly destabilize the track’s narrative, causing the listener to question whether the singer is mentally ill or truly saw something that fateful night.

Closing out the record is “Dead Dog in an Alleyway,” which alongside “Civil Servant,” the album opener, bookends the dense record and encapsulates everything Dawson hoped to accomplish on “2020.” The track explores modern London, which Dawson feels exemplifies his fears about England’s social climate.

All put, Richard Dawson’s newest project is an absolutely brilliant record to experience, and demands listen after listen both to understand the complex messages he hopes to convey, but also to experience the pure musicality he offers on each track. Blending his traditional experimental elements, entirely unique voice, and more mainstream rock and electronic sounds, Dawson offers awe-inspiring and disturbing insight into modern life and the near-distant future, or unavoidable fate, that awaits us. The surface has been but scratched on “2020,” and layer after layer will continue to be peeled back with each subsequent listen.

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