Richard Dawson: Peasant review – muddy glorious

A concept album set in medieval north Britain shouldn’t work. But Dawson’s way with lyrics and melodies makes it unique and often breathtaking

It’s hard to stop certain alarm bells ringing before you’ve even heard a note of Richard Dawson’s sixth solo album. The follow-up to 2014’s acclaimed Nothing Important is, we are informed, a song cycle based on the lives of inhabitants of Bryneich – a kingdom in Yr Hen Ogledd, or the Old North – in the early middle ages, a description that provokes the reaction: oh God, it isn’t, is it?

Dawson has made great capital from unlikely source material before. Nothing Important featured a 16-minute long track that began with his memory of a Year 7 school trip descending into chaos when a pupil produced a bottle of booze filched from their parents’ drinks cabinet, and ended with a catalogue of other misfortunes: “My neighbour Andrew lost two fingers to a staffie cross, while jogging over Cow Hill with a Pepperami in his bumbag.” But Peasant is something else entirely. It breaks one of rock music’s golden rules, the one that suggests you should never get medieval on your audience’s ass. For some reason, virtually no artist seems to have essayed that period without looking like, as Chaucer would have put it, an ers. The very mention of it evokes painful memories of prog rock acts playing crumhorns and referring to themselves as minstrels, of dopey metal bands whose work carries the offputting whiff of the Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s latterday outfit Blackmore’s Night, replete with costumes and a keyboard player who calls himself Bard David of Larchmont.

Nevertheless, it’s an arena into which Dawson has fearlessly marched, bearing a raft of meticulous-sounding research and, in the video accompanying lead-off track Ogre at least, wearing a period jerkin.

For all the grim precedents, you can see why the era appealed. For one thing, Dawson’s research has revealed a place and time mired in bleakness – there’s a great deal of superstition, violence, hopelessness and fear, not least of shadowy foreign forces killing and wreaking havoc – that he clearly sees as analogous to our own. The lyrics are dense and packed with arcane stuff about shapeshifters and wizardbeard and rocktripe, but the most immediately striking lines are the ones that ring out with a kind of timeless clarity: “In this day and age it’s hard to explain but it happens time and time again,” protests Prostitute’s destitute protagonist; the narrator of Soldier finds himself “Clammy with doubt and really scared of going”; the droning guitars of Scientist conceal a story of rationality battling with beliefs too entrenched to be reasoned with.

There are proggy chord sequences and presumably improvised passages of dissonance that, depending on your musical perspective, are either in thrall to the work of late avant-garde guitar pioneer Derek Bailey (one of Dawson’s accompanying musicians, harpist Rhodri Davies, was a Bailey collaborator), or – as a five-star Guardian review of Nothing Important suggested – “like some analogue of Les Dawson’s piano routines”. The resulting melange is a style that is entirely Dawson’s own.

Captain Beefheart, Derek Bailey: these are names redolent of difficult listening, and, at its most splintered-sounding, Peasant is occasionally hard work, albeit rewarding. The opening instrumental Herald offers haltingly played off-key brass that eventually dissolves into a scattered series of farty honks and parps, while the combination of unremitting lyrical grimness and fractured music on Prostitute and Hob – the former pockmarked with bursts of feedback and stomach-churning electronic noise – definitely counts as heavy going. But Dawson’s masterstroke, the thing that lifts Peasant from the margins and turns it from a smartarse-critics-and-Wire-subscribers-only curio into something else entirely, is his willingness to liberally fill his music with melodies that you could reasonably describe as hooky. You could transplant the chorus of Shapeshifter into a mainstream pop track without too much bother, likewise the tunes found in Beggar and Ogre. The leavening effect of their appearance amid the skronk and clatter of Dawson’s arrangements and grotesqueries of his lyrics is often quite breathtaking, like glowering clouds parting to reveal sunlight.

The result is an album that’s out there on its own, and not merely because it’s a song cycle set in the early middle ages that doesn’t make you want to curl up and die of embarrassment. Abstruse but weirdly accessible, recherche but pertinent, Peasant is quite an achievement.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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