Dawson is a fiercely working-class songwriter.
If the characters on Richard Dawson’s 2020 are not the reincarnations of the ones on the 2017 masterpiece Peasant, their lives are being ruined by the reincarnations of the same problems. “How little we are, clung to the river’s edge/ Come hell or high water,” Dawson exclaims on “The Queen’s Head,” singing as the proprietor of a flooded pub. From ancient times until today, nature fucks with people’s lives in random and unpredictable ways. But isn’t it curious how the people most affected are usually the ones with the fewest means to rebuild?
Dawson is a fiercely working-class songwriter – the Ken Loach of rock. Peasant titled its songs after its characters’ professions, which for better or worse defined them in the rough medieval environment his songs waded through. And though 2020 is exhilarating to listen to just on the strength of its writing, its power and poignancy comes from its empathy for the underdog, be that the exploited proletariat or just a kid failing at his soccer game. “Stop fannying around,” yells the kid’s disappointed dad on “Two Halves.” “You’re not Lionel Messi.” That might be true – but the kid is the star of a Dawson song.
If you don’t know who Lionel Messi is, welcome to Dawson’s unyieldingly English – specifically Northern English – world. Aldi, Nando’s, Peroni, Ready-Brek, Sellotape, Wetherspoons, Zoopla. Hyper-specific references abound, including those to contemporary technology that are usually used in songs as a cheap way of dating them to the present. A “Heart Emoji” catalyzes a cuckold’s realization that his wife’s always been kind of awful. A “Civil Servant” finally musters up the courage to skip work and play Call of Duty. The album’s centerpiece, “Fulfillment Center,” takes us inside the nightmarish guts of some dreadful warehouse; Wiis and Blu-ray players go in, people who complain go out.
But Dawson’s writing is too strong to lean on these easy glimpses of recognition, and though the music here is more ebullient and rock-like than the tangled folk of his past work, it’s still too knotty and difficult for us to suspect he’s courting relatability. When he sings, “All over the city we arise/ For a job we despise,” he’s not selling us a bio for social media. He wants us to see ourselves in these characters and to understand that the anxious and downtrodden and exploited and otherwise miserable deserve to live, thrive, and be honored in song. He wants us to feel less alone, to feel like heroes simply for keeping our composure in a world of shite. These songs are like statues dedicated to the common man.
I had a smile on my face the whole time I was listening. I loved these characters, related to them, wanted them to succeed and be happy. They’re good people. Even those who do futile, ridiculous things have reasons. The protagonist of “Black Triangle” has a YouTube channel on U.F.O. sightings, which would be fodder for a lesser writer to make fun of but in Dawson’s eyes is a reasonable thing for a man to do if he saw a dark shape zoom over the supermarket in his younger years. And even if “Jogging” is hardly sufficient to stave off the anxiety of modern life, we understand why that song’s narrator would take to it. Small consolation is better than none.
2020 seems like the future. It’s in less than three months. Hell, Blade Runner was set in 2019, and we don’t even have space colonies or flying cars yet, just a lot of techno-paranoia and anxiety. It seems a little overwhelming, almost unbelievable, to exist in a universe where there’s a robot citizen and dead musicians tour as holograms and you can order arms or cocaine off the Internet if you know how. What Dawson’s telling us is that we’re in the same fuck-off world as ever. The greatest achievement of 2020 might be that he makes that fact seem comforting.