Richard Dawson is the most unsung bard in all of England. This short, stout, Geordie songsmith first caught my ear in 2014 with his album Nothing Important – on its sixteen minute title track, Dawson started by telling the story of his own birth, before embarking on a poetic odyssey through the most formative memories of his entire life, set to some absolutely wild guitar playing.
PEASANT, the follow-up to that album, is even more ambitious. This time, Dawson has turned his genius for storytelling away from his own life and – as you do – towards the Middle Ages. Yes, you read that right: PEASANT is a concept album that tells the stories of ten imaginary Medieval characters concocted entirely in Dawson’s imagination, each given name in the track listing: ‘Soldier’, ‘Weaver’, ‘Beggar’, ‘Prostitute’ and so on.
If that sounds intimidating, it isn’t. PEASANT is vibrant and uplifting music, and listening to it feels like charting an unexplored corner of a fantastical world. Anyone who appreciates an album like Joanna Newsom’s Ys will find in this record a kindred spirit: the winding songs and allusive stories are of the same ilk, though the songs are of a more digestible length.
The first time I listened to PEASANT, I was bowled over by its second track, ‘Ogre’, in a way that few songs managed in 2017. The song opens with lilting guitars and strings, which seem to come from a very ancient place. But the final minutes are what really took my breath away: a rush of harp, acoustic guitar and euphoric choir vocals form an invocation to the sun for three minutes, chanting over and over with increasing fervour: ‘When the sun is climbing…’
Even after a year with PEASANT, that moment still gives me goosebumps. It makes me think of a community gathering in a tiny Medieval village in the middle of Spring, where all the children and cows and sheep are dancing around and clapping, celebrating the season with a kind of earnest joy that music seems hardly capable of these days. And something about it is so English in a way I find very endearing.
Smart of Dawson, too, to put this moment at the beginning of his record, because from here on in things get a bit knottier. ‘Prostitute’ tells the story of a downtrodden prostitute who steals a horse and escapes into the country, after her latest suitor chokes to death on his own puke. In ‘Shapeshifter’, the narrator gets lost in a mysterious place called the Bog of Names, before being freed by a benevolent animal spirit.
Each tale is strange and twisting, constructed with the kind of vivid imagination we might expect from a fantasy author like George R.R. Martin. And each one is delivered with Dawson’s absolutely marvellous voice, a thick and highly Northern drawl which is nevertheless capable of ascending to some perilous falsetto heights. The supporting musicians Dawson surrounds himself with, meanwhile, bring a huge amount of character and variety to each song, especially the fantastic choir vocalists.
Together, Dawson and his troupe of minstrels have put together one of the most ambitious folk records I’ve heard this decade with PEASANT. It is as uplifting as it is experimental, as intricate as it is inviting, and the tapestry of Olde English stories which it weaves is as compelling as any record I heard all year. Bar one, of course…