Richard Dawson’s brand of freak folk instils anxiety and cuddles in equal measure. A comforting warmer to many that crave acoustic-led fireside storytelling, it’s equally off putting to many that are yet to delve fully into Dawson’s laments and cryptic tales. No more so than with his new beast: The Ruby Cord.
The Newcastle native has had many dips into both folk music and experimental noise-rock in the past decade; it seems a cyclical tradition for Brits to play on their characteristic of eccentricity, defined by a rich cultural history. You can absolutely hear Ian Anderson’s observational comedy here, but while his Dungeons And Dragons synth-led tales swing into completely over-the-top bizarro moments, instead Dawson’s singer-songwriter lens provides captivating opinion pieces, drawing on humorous or sad personal stories way above mere caricature.
The Ruby Cord makes up the third of a trio of albums centred on societal issues surrounding Dawson at the times of writing. It’s a natural progression from the medieval pastoral tales of Peasant, presented as Canterbury Tales fables which drew parallels to contemporary issues. Brexit was a big topic back then, you see. The fallout then followed in the second installment—the spectacular politics-these-days social satire of 2020. But here, Dawson struggles with entrapment in a near-future where virtual reality has too much a warping effect on our consciousness. That cherished heritage envisaged before is on the brink of danger—fantastical memories we now feel further inclined to cling to as troubles lay ahead.
The Northumbrian takes his time to immerse us into this precarious dystopia. 41 minutes in fact, the runtime of The Hermit. While no stranger to longer sessions—his wonderful The Vile Stuff is a quarter of an hour recollection about a disastrous school trip blighted by “Asda’s own-brand stubbies”, teacher affairs and an incident with a screwdriver—this is a less obscure and more meditative feature. Its segments get chopped into moments of brief silence, while it overall remains nuanced. Dawson himself linked part of its effect to an idle video game, a real and not-real experience that outlines the album’s theme of dissociation.
With producer Sam Grant—a member of Newcastle’s Sabbathy stoner rockers Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs—they encouraged each other to take the harder path for the opener, a struggle of a listening experience that calls out for a visual accompaniment. Luckily, Dawson developed a short film with James Hankins for the track, playing at cinemas across the UK. Citing a love for dream-sequence explorer Apichatpong Weerasethakul, both visual and audio mediums are, presumably, examples of vicarious fantasy living where the difficult real world gets left behind.
While the starter is a mostly calming soundscape, we’re thrown straight into The Fool. Sounding like it could be a cut from the ol’ Albion-centric Peasant, it’s far more noisy and terrifying. It squelches with bleeps and bloops, and melodic violins set up a carnivalesque sound emphasised with layered vocal cuts. His frequent collaborators—Rhodri Davies, Angharad Davies and Andrew Cheetham—drag his singular visions on The Ruby Cord into newer, grander instrumental pastures, crafting lilting or sinister images. Thicker Than Water, beginning with ominous clunky vinyl string rings, quickly becomes far more positively charged. Dawson’s falsetto hits the whimsical mark, skipping along with the plucked guitars to delectable, rising fun, and the almost fuzzy distorted amp sounds suitably rugged as a backdrop for lyrics detailing two individuals wandering towards some sort of cataclysmic event. Maybe.
The haziness of meaning does not end there; “an archive of futility” is outlined in Museum—the spotlight-on-Richard number that’s a subtly beautiful trip, with reflections of “distant memories”, climate protests, and building to a wonderful conclusion not far off from his brilliant 2017 song Ogre. The noise of No – One (a consistent thread titling each penultimate album track) acts as a glitchy mind-fuzz through both name and ominous throbbing synth, and while The Tip Of An Arrow gleefully gallops across its ten-minute course, a similarly-named Horse And Rider instead increases its speed gradually after the first 3 minutes, before becoming a denouement filled with a slightly jubilant, melancholic chorus chant.
Ambitious? Tick. Thoughtful? Bingo. Difficult to absorb? Bloody hell, yes. But its method to alienate is not the whole story, as it unfolds like a charming play filled with tragedy, intrigue and expert performances across the board. Blurring the lines between what is funny, what is troublesome, and what we know to be correct, are all parts of Dawson’s narrative. This most speculative and worried feature demands concentrated listens, but repeated ones. Especially after we see how the world’s worries all turn out.
For fans of: Jethro Tull, Joanna Newsom, Michael Waterson
‘The Ruby Cord’ by Richard Dawson is released on 18th November on Domino Records.
Words by Elliot Burr