Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Richard Dawson - Nothing Important - Album Review [21st October 2014]

[2014.10.21] Tom Hollingworth, for NE:MM Online Magazine.

Upon hearing that Richard Dawson was releasing a new album called Nothing Important, a slightly modified version of a famous quotation from the artist Francis Bacon cycled in my head as I tried to manage my expectations in the time leading up to hearing it.  

“I am an optimist about nothing.” 
“I am an optimist about Nothing Important.”

Bacon’s wonderful statement has the possibility of being interpreted in contradictory ways with both conclusions being held equally true. This is just the kind of paradox Dawson finds liberating, and in a recent interview for the BBC, regarding his musicianship, he explained that it is best “to be yourself as much as possible within the knowledge that you are both nothing and everything.” Through acquainting himself with these limits and possibilities he has found more freedom to play. It would seem The Magic Bridge was his first commitment to this understanding, wanting to share the potential of this viewpoint all at once, but it is in The Glass Trunk and this latest release that we see that original enthusiasm soaked into his instincts. In these most recent records he has had the confidence to narrow his focus, which, in another paradox, has lead to the creation of albums with a greater breadth.
Nothing Important is a collection of four tracks. Two sixteen-plus minute songs as centrepieces, with two instrumentals book-ending the set. As with his previous two records, the form of the album is greatly considered to give weight and dimension to the songs above their isolated merits. By placing his song Man Has Been Struck Down By Hands Unseen as the penultimate track on his 2011 album The Magic Bridge, Dawson uses the powerful climax of that testament to bring together all of the energy and emotion accumulated throughout the record (as well as in that song itself) to deliver a cathartic release as we reach our destination; the magic bridge of the record title. With his previous album, The Glass Trunk, the listener’s ear is brutally cleansed after each of the a cappella songs by two fractured instrumentals following each vocal track in turn (except the last.) This formal segregation keeps the ear alert and listening clearly to each composition fully as each new track arrives. Here, with Nothing Important, the form celebrates the lengthy centre tracks. The outer pieces act as Prelude and Epilogue; introducing ideas and feelings relevant to the Universe about to be described, and then delivering us from that place with a final thought.

The titling of the four tracks is instantly provocative, particularly with the instrumentals being named after two controversial biblical Apostles. As a fractured progression of notes from his trusty amplified and distorted parlour guitar open the programme, the listener is asked to consider this opening track in relation to Judas Iscariot; to some, a traitor to Jesus, to others, an important catalyst in the process that saved the mankind. The opening guitar expressions are deliberately tripped-up and reset for the first minute of the track until the phrasing evolves into a violent stomp, with the open-strings rattling and the fretted notes whining. These more quantised riffs reflect Dawson’s passion for Heavy Metal music. As he punches at the Locrian intervals and beats down on the bass strings we forget we’re listening to one man with a guitar. All of a sudden, the mood changes and the tempo is relinquished as barely touched chords maintain sound just above silence. A thin lead line then falls into the similar folly as described in the introduction before being finally swept into a blasting repeat of those angry riffs. Each section of this instrumental portrays a character disaffected in some way; from their inability to harness a consistent voice, through to their arrogant reactionary swaggering. Dawson uses his Judas to demonstrate a passage of chaos and destruction - and this is where the story begins!

The album’s title track emerges from a singular harmonic; feedback gently expanding the tone until intervals seize upon shapes and nurture a new environment for themselves. Images of The Big Bang and the start of the Universe colour the mind. From this scope, the song lyrics transport the listener to the birth of a child at St. Mary’s Hospital, forty years ago. Our singer assumes the voice of the newborn and relays a collage of peculiar childhood moments. He uses physical description to recall events, avoiding the rhetoric of persuasion or judgement. As the details fill in the picture of a life, he interjects ‘I am nothing / You are nothing / Nothing Important / Death inside a dream,” each time singing the assertion more desperately until the final repetition, where the delivery is almost rabid whilst the guitar support buckles. After the track sprawls through an energised instrumental passage (a skipping section that recalls a similar motion of a former Dawson jig,The Bamburgh Beast) a final sung section takes over. Our narrator sites further memories and becomes increasingly frustrated that these seemingly insignificant objects ‘remain so clear, while the faces of [his] loved ones disappear?’ This song climaxes in an elongated melody, using melisma to stretch out a final desperate cry. The last stanza twists the knife in the story as the singer occupies the voice of the child’s parent, testifying that their child was the most beautiful thing that they had ever seen, and yet he lived for only seven days.

This song uses the concept of time to expose views around what is considered important. Firstly, donating a comparatively large amount of time to express a song titled Nothing Important raises the suspicion that this title is ironic. Over that time, the dynamic, structural and stylistic variety of the sound consistently fights the idea in the mind of the listener that nothing important is happening, for in front of our ears the terrain is constantly challenging. The music spans the life of a person, beginning with their birth and ending with their death. By including little sound before and after these events, our songwriter weights their importance as all that is different from silence.

Though Dawson sings firmly, often in unison with melody lines from his guitar, an amount of his words get camouflaged in the sound. This is in part due to the superior volume of the guitar, the more resonant tone of the instrument over his voice, and a singing style which chooses to soften the diction of certain words for a more legato style. All of these choices are deliberate and such consideration has been a consistent pursuit of his in sound-checks for gigs over the years. Sometimes he performs live without a microphone whilst still amplifying his guitar, demanding the fullest delivery of his voice to rise up and be heard. Where as a songwriter like Leonard Cohen mixes his voice clearly above the rest of the orchestration to direct the listener’s attention to the words first and foremost, to Dawson the overall effect is prime. By balancing his music this way, the listener has two choices - to zoom out and see the galaxy of stars, or to specifically focus in on the singing; to register each word, missing the full effect to discover the detail. Jarvis Cocker writes a request to the listener in the inlay of Pulp’s album ‘Different Class’  that they do not read his lyrics whilst they listen to the songs recognising what would most likely be missed if someone was to do that. Here, through these performance and mixing decisions, Dawson implies a version of that request.

The complimentary epic on this album,The Vile Stuff, is a mighty march through a restless dream from a hospital bed, the contents of which is ripe with calamity, mixing the believable with the symbolic. Dawson is fascinated by this situation, exploring it first on The Magic Bridge through his Grandad’s Deathbed Hallucinations. The track is introduced with a seductive swaying guitar riff. As listeners, we are gently rocked to sleep in the sweet major tonality. As the pattern disperses, there are hints of melodic augmentation, creating suspicion that all may not be what it seems, but as each repeating chord lingers longer… and longer… … and longer… … … we are drugged, and in another death of a dream. The world down the rabbit whole quickly forms around a phrygian melody from Dawson’s guitar and an accompanying marching beat, made of a bass drum and clapping. The lucid stream of lyrics are chanted in unison, an octave apart, as unrelenting as the pulse. Many characters are encountered in this Alice In Wonderland-style trip of adolescent experiences. On a school trip, we meet Craig, who cracks his head open and has to be rushed to hospital. Then, we meet a scamp who schemes and covets the bed of Miss Bartholomew. Later we meet Andrew, who is contemplating a dramatic lifestyle change. Did I mention a Horse-Headed King who sings? He’s in there too.

If the previous track explored a relationship between chronology and life, then The Vile Stuff seems to focus on the forces that throw a life around. The listed experiences are framed within a dream our narrator is having following the consumption of a liquid. “I only drank a / Few little droplets / I only took a tiny draft of the vile stuff.” Such a small act triggered this world of experience and adventure. Drinking these droplets fuelled hallucinations of helicopters. The image of someone drinking a small amount of an undisclosed liquid reminds us again of Alice in her story and the vial she drank from, the contents of which diminished her size in relation to the world that surrounded her. Dawson sings this twisted melody at full force, even double-tracking his voice to make himself heard against the surrounding ocean of noise, as if he is attempting to be heard in an environment that stands tall around him.

The instrumental support in this track allows Dawson to experiment with his guitar parts in a different way, ornamenting the central sounds with polyrhythms and splayed arpeggios. As the song proceeds, extra layers of guitars and percussion, tuned and otherwise, are added to the mix, steadily building the power of the sound, until the track finally rides out in a farmyard of noise, with saxophone improvisations and chanting, all competing within the drone.

Finally, the second instrumental, Doubting Thomas, guides us to the end of the record. The slow-moving plagal chords heal feedback as it attempts to grow. The soft repeating progression allows the listener’s mind space and time to reflect on the considerable detail of the past forty minutes of music. By placing us with the Apostle who doubted Jesus’ return with the resurrection, and required proof before he believed, our thoughts are persuaded towards the application of empiricism. With this album, Dawson has written a tapestry charting relationships with the everything, the nothing and places in-between. If you doubted the existence of these places before, it is likely that you will believe in them now.

When The Magic Bridge was released, I was too heartbroken by it to imagine how this unbelievable painter could improve on this masterpiece. I feel so lucky to have lived locally in Newcastle to witness his concerts around that albums release and in the years following, watching the complexion of his confidence get healthier and healthier. Dawson has said that there was a long period of time in his earlier years making music before a clearer instrument and compositional personality emerged. I recall when I went to buy a record from him after the first time I ever saw him play, and as he handed me Sings Songs & Plays Guitar, he used the interaction to manage my expectations for that recording whilst enthusing that his next shortly-to-be-available release was much better. His comment held no arrogance, it simply reflected the truth of his understanding for what had been happening with his composing, and that it would be the next album rather than the one I held in my hand that would show a light he had now found. I don’t know where and when he would pin-point this rose growing through the concrete, but for me, although Sings Songs & Plays Guitar shows wonderful roots, it is The Magic Bridge that breaks through and stands up tall to the sun; exquisitely designed and utterly vulnerable. I now know why he was excited for that release. It represented change and a brave step. With both The Glass Trunk and Nothing Important following as unique triumphs in this new garden he seems so at home playing in, each new offering makes us more thankful that he took that leap. Wherever his adventures take him next, I hope he is supported and cherished.

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