Nobody writes about humanity, our hopes and dreams, obsessions and follies, like Richard Dawson. A singer and guitarist from Newcastle upon Tyne in the north of England, Dawson works loosely in folk tradition, although this only begins to explain the breadth and eccentricity of his songs. In a minute you can find him singing a story of alcoholic misadventures on a school trip; the next, venturing back to the early medieval kingdom of Bryneich, or singing the lives of poor souls packing packages in an online retail warehouse. In truth, all human life is here.
Dawson has a habit of pushing the boundaries of his work and his new album Spirit is no different. At first glance, you might think it’s not about people at all – each of its seven tracks is named after a plant. Of course, that is not the whole story. The album is a collaboration with the Finnish group Circle, and the title is a Finnish word; Circle’s Jussi Lehtisalo says it translates to something like “spirit” or “ghost,” though he acknowledges that its true meaning is difficult to pin down.
Circle and Dawson did Spirit in fits and starts. They first shared demos remotely, then reunited for in-person recording sessions in Pori on the Finnish coast, before finally completing the album remotely when Europe went into lockdown in the spring of 2020. This prolonged gestation appears to have worked out to your favor. From its botanical theme, something magnificent takes shape: a set of stories dealing with ancient history and deep time, touching on themes of human fatigue, tragedy and the mysteries of the afterlife.
Dawson sings in a bold, unapologetic scream that sometimes unexpectedly slips away at higher octaves. His guitar playing is equally distinctive: resonant chords dispensed with knotty dexterity. But where he really excels is as a storyteller, and Spirit has some especially flowery examples of the form. “Silene” is the true story of a 32,000-year-old seed buried by a squirrel, then plucked from the permafrost by Russian scientists, and finally germinated in a laboratory. “Ivy” relates the myth of the Greek god Dionysus, who gave King Midas his powers to create gold.
The songs often lean heavily towards exposition: “Unfortunately, the mushroom crops we brought with us / Have started to degrade,” Dawson sings in “Cooksonia.” But as the words leave their lips, they take on the quality of parables, their dense narratives encourage the listener to search within them for deeper meanings.
Now with some 40 albums in his career, Circle’s take on various rock sub-genres – prog, hard, glam, space, kraut – is performed with a virtuous technicality and camp flamboyance, in equal measure Neu! and Judas Priest. Most obviously, they give Dawson’s songs a sense of speed and scale. “Methuselah” advances on a power-metal charge, with rippling synths and thunderous thunder. A couple of minutes on “Ivy,” the guitars and drums lock into a motorik pulse, and the song only gets bigger from there, fueled by an unearthly sense of propulsion. But Circle’s musicality also manifests itself in more textured ways. The 12-minute “Silphium” is adorned with a decorative piano and elegant synthesizers, and around its midpoint it descends into an extended jazz-rock segment before dusting off for a final, triumphant replay.
Death is everywhere Spirit, sometimes tragicomic. “Methuselah” is the story of a man who sets out to find one of the oldest trees in the world, named after a supernaturally old biblical patriarch; The joke is that you can only prove that you found it by cutting it. Other times, death feels mysterious and unknowable: In “Lily,” a Newcastle hospital nurse recalls the paranormal events that followed the deaths of those in her care. “Black lights / Blooming at the door / Petals unfolding around me,” reflects Dawson, and Circle amplifies the weirdness with eerie opera choruses.
In a catalog that already stands out for its strangeness, Spirit It might be Richard Dawson’s weirdest album to date. But his ideas are fertilized by the peculiar twists and turns of these songs; the more Dawson and Circle lean toward their eccentricities, the more their music resonates. Regardless of what Dawson writes, he’s actually writing about people – the ways we choose to live our lives, and the strange and horrible things that happen to us along the way. Spirit expands these themes on widescreen, unfolding across continents, centuries, and even beyond. It feels deep, even when the true meaning of his songs, his Spirit, so to speak, slip through your fingers like air.
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