Words About Music
I had a feeling I was going to enjoy the folksy, bardic “Peasant,” the seventh LP from UK singer/songwriter Richard Dawson, from nearly the moment I pressed play. Dawson’s music combines the narrative elements of Joanna Newsom’s music with the acoustic balladry of Neutral Milk Hotel. Throw in a dash of Everything Everything’s catchy sonic quirks and you’ve got… well, you’ve sort of got Richard Dawson’s music. As a whole, this is some singular shit.
Each track on this hour-long voyage is its own contained story which adds up to a universe of fantasy, self-sustenance, and corruption. Dawson sings from the perspective of heroes, prostitutes, weavers, and other artificers all across this album. It sounds like the sort of music people in the “Game of Thrones” universe might stumble across in a local bar, but in this universe, they can easily be misconstrued as the Captain Beefheart-esque ramblings of a madman.
Ramblings these are not, folks. “Peasant” is a brilliant, unique, avant-garde folk project that will frighten and enlighten you within the same song, hitting you with somewhat linear lyrics that denote fear, power, and community.
And it all begins with “Herald,” one of the album’s two short instrumentals. In many ways, it sets the tone for the album without sounding like much else on the album. Trumpets sound and grow in volume, leading one to expect a somewhat straightforward introduction, maybe some more instruments joining the mix to create something coherent. Instead, Dawson’s unique sense of musical freedom takes hold, and the trumpets seem to be hitting completely random notes at random intervals. It’s like a competition to see who can hit the quietest and final note.
The album’s first proper song, “Ogre,” begins sounding reserved and orderly by comparison. Some horns and strings hit us as the song’s group vocals overwhelm. It tells a strange tale of a “heartbroken potter’s idiot boy” who is snatched up by, well, an ogre. This song sounds more like a play taking place in front of me than it does a typical song, with its multitude of structures, bizarre chords, and provocative lyrics. Dawson’s voice is unique and booming, as he commands the sound’s tale through unusual melody.
And yet, this song is extremely catchy, especially the final third which sings of what we shall do when the sun is climbing and when the sun is dying. We may “tarry by a Pool of Plenty,” or perhaps we will “cross the Causeway of No Memory.” And even when this album does veer a bit close to the overtly goofy realms of Viking and folk-metal (without the metal), it still hits us with creative and strange enough lyrics that it totally transcends comparison.
The album’s next song, “Soldier,” is a more straightforward reward for anyone who made it through the first two songs. This track tells a more regular story about a soldier who decides to run away from battle in order to marry the person he loves. He decides battle isn’t worth losing his life when he has what he feels like is so much joy in his life. It’s a decision I certainly can respect, because fuck war. And also, it makes a compelling and beautiful narrative for Dawson’s distinctive voice to profess. It’s even catchier than its preceding song, and successfully conveys the desired atmosphere. He does a fantastic job of capturing a side of war that isn’t oft-explored, with lyrics like: “Even now on the evening of battle/I’m clammy with doubt of love/I’m really scared of going/How I yearn to hold you once again.” As the track reaches its narrative climax, distant noise-drones pepper the mix, a touch I personally enjoy.
I also think Dawson’s guitar-playing skills are not to be understated, especially when he kicks these songs off with noodly acoustic parts which are complex and perhaps improvised. His riffs are pretty solid, too, like the one on “Weaver.” The story is a bit less forthright on this track, telling of a professional weaver whose wife falls on the ground, causing her to go into labor. The weaver somehow knows this baby isn’t his, but he still ponders the mystery of love in a fond manner as the song’s musical backing reaches a more logical conclusion.
Still, Dawson’s voice (lyrically and vocally) is worth praising, even if I’m not exactly certain of where he is going with the narratives on these songs. I love the vocal performance on the track “Prostitute,” which is from the perspective of one. I like the way he humanizes her, singing about her desires to seek a better life for herself, reminiscing about her father’s death under the wheels of a cart. Thankfully, the track has a happy ending, with Dawson singing of the prostitute’s noble escape after a gnarly bit of synth noise.
The next song, “Shapeshifter” feature more impressive melodies and guitar-parts. It seems to be about a wanderer who is saved from being stuck in the “Bog of Names” by a figure with a striped tail. I never said this album is traditional, although I suppose there are certain fantastical musical traditions that are being drawn upon here. This continues with the song “Scientist,” which features Dawson playing the role of an inventor asked by the king to bestow his latest “seeing-device” unto the Church, who reject him. This one is also fairly inconclusive, but the melodies and the noisy intensity make it sound very urgent and captivating, especially in comparison to some of the more low-key songs that precede it.
One of the darkest tales comes on “Hob,” a song about a man who seems to (inadvertently?) make a deal with the devil or some other evil deity in order to save his infant son from whooping cough. After the boy miraculously recovers, he grows up to develop the ability to tell the future, and people seem to like him alright. At the end of the song, a mysterious man arrives to tell the song’s protagonist to wake his son up and let him know it’s time for him to keep his father’s end of the bargain. What this means, I couldn’t really tell you, but it’s a disturbing cliffhanger of an ending nonetheless.
“Beggar” hits us with another song that is dark and sad, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. Essentially, it’s a dead dog story. A beggar loves his hound, a “snow-colored collie,” and the two share a deep love and respect to each other throughout their companionship. The dog chases a rat and ends up getting lost, stuck under a bush, and unable to recover, forcing the protagonist, who has very little, to find himself in a sea of self-blame. It’s another touching moment on this album, and it’s followed up very quickly by the album’s second instrumental, the noisy “No-one.”
This is followed by the album’s longest song, the nearly-11-minute “Masseuse.” Sort of in the same vein of “Prostitute,” this track is about a woman seeking independence from men, specifically needing to make a living by massaging them. What she seeks is something a local monk brought back from Iceland: the “Pin of Quib,” which gives whoever possesses it eternal beauty. She tries to kill the monk, but his self-defense skills are too much for her, and he is able to disarm her. When she wakes up, he shows her the Pin of Quib, which actually just a pebble. “It was all mere folly,” Dawson sings, as he finishes off the masseuse with a bit of moralistic, poetic justice. The intense instrumentation continues to build, with some distorted sounds making their way into the mix amid the slamming percussion and acoustic instrumentation. It sounds like an acoustic version of sludge metal, concluding the track with a sorrowful, haunting coda.
If it wasn’t clear from my lack of complaints throughout this review, I fucking love this album. “Peasant” gives me a sound that is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It scratches an itch for fantastical pub folk with dramatic lyricism and artful presentation. Richard Dawson sounds like Sufjan Stevens if Suf was alive in the 16th century. It’s on some Middle Ages shit that can only be adequately experienced by sitting down, listening, and reading the lyrics.
I love the consistently inventive instrumentation as well as the ingenious composition. It’s easy to tell that a lot of work went into this project, and it’s one of the best singer-songwriter albums I’ve heard in 2017. It has some serious replay value and 9 very well written narratives that combine to create a more persuasive fictional universe than most television programs. It’s an hour of music that is well worth your time, and I will be singing the praises of “Peasant” well past the end of the year.
SCORE — 9.25 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Ogre, Soldier, Weaver, Prostitute, Shapeshifter, Scientist, Hob, Beggar, Masseuse