Richard Dawson is something of a painter. With ‘Peasant’, his seventh long player since 2005, he weaves an intricate microcosm of vivid mental images and lucid musicality. With a visceral melodic and lyrical aesthetic rooted in a time the best part of thousand year ago, Dawson is an artist with an eye to paint a landscape that melds the worlds of fantasy and reality into a fascinating brew of ideas and sounds.
‘Peasant’ is a dense album in every way. Heavily loaded with symbolic imagery and minature, self-contained stories, Dawson takes the long established format of cautionary folk tales and twists it into something altogether darker than the already often troubling stable of vintage folk ballads. Musically, it’s an intense listen; loaded to sagging point with thick arrangements and heavy sonics, it’s a richly creative and deeply imaginative record but not one that has the inclination to make concessions for the faint-hearted.
Indeed, as is so often the case with the wildly ambitious and daring, ‘Peasant’ can be an intially challenging album. Clocking-in at only a couple of minutes shy of an hour it’s a substantial listen and, while that runtime is fully justified, it doesn’t make the album any of an easier sell to newcomers. Songs here are lengthy and meandering; largely jettisoning conventional song structure – ‘Peasant’ is an album designed to be ingested over a long period of time. It’s a deeply rewarding record and one that reveals previously hidden nuances with each new play, slowly revealing a glistening undercurrent to an album that can initially appear callus.
Although Dawson has crafted a resolutely singular musical bent, ‘Peasant’ does still place itself in the lineage of a few fringe folk bands. The gutteral growl of acid folk provocateurs Comus is a definite reference point, Dawson sharing a similarly twisted take on tradition folk music and fascination with historical setting as the scene for his frequently macbre tales. The eccentricism of The Incredible String Band is likewise an influence – the group’s gently meandering, soft-focussed exploration a likely starting point for the winding, unorthodox structures that Dawson so often employs on his songs.
In its lyrical content is perhaps where ‘Peasant’ shines the brightest. Dawson articulately forges self-contained narratives; fleeting insights into the often bleak and deeply unfortunates lives of the everyday poor of the pre-Medieval era. It’s the lives of the characters in Dawson’s songs that form the beating heart of ‘Peasant’; grim fables that form a solid narrative-bedrock that – though not afraid to drift into the surreal times – ground an often deeply experimental set of songs in something more tangible and concrete. Dawson really enhabits the characters created in his songs – ‘Peasant’ is an album of self penned folk songs in the purest sense; every track here tells a very personalised tale and Dawson’s rich, emotive voice articulates that sentiment with such earthy, raw honesty that it really does give the impression that – even momentarily – Dawson fully immerses himself in the universes of those of whom he sings
Musically, ‘Peasant’ is more abstract. There are brief moments where Dawson teeters-on-the-edge of something akin to folk in the usual parameters of the phrase. However, generally he exists on the periphery of the style, creating modern folk song in attitude but not necessarily approach. Dawson employs some fascinating tactics in his songs and his arrangements are strikingly idiosyncratic. Guitars buzz and simmer with a clattering grace, earthy choirs often back up the raw, unfettered soul of Dawson’s voice whilst stomping, rude percussion keeps a sharp pace going. There’s a sharply defined and eloquently voiced dissonance that goes a long way to colour the atmosphere of ‘Peasant’. The two minute album opener ‘Herald’ is more of a prologue than anything, but it does set an atmospheric precedent in its ominous use of jarring atonality. The experimental leanings of ‘Peasant’ never feel haphazard or rushed. Dawson meshes his more avant-garde tendancies with an innate and profound skill for raw song-craft that results in an album as musically deep and richly rewarding as it is lyrically fascinating.
‘Peasant’ has a lot to take in. Complex, ambitious and unwieldy it’s an album that would be admirable even if it didn’t quite work out. The fact that Dawson has created a record that lives up to and perhaps even exceeds the weight of its own aspiration is deeply impressive. ‘Peasant’ is a hugely original album made with a craftsman’s eye for detail and the demented grace of the times he sings about. Uncompromising in it’s dogged pursuit of individual vision, ‘Peasant’ is one of those rare and important records that manages to be commendable for its deep-set imagination whilst genuinely immersing and rewarding listeners who are prepared to embark upon the strange path Richard Dawson leads them down.