Wander into the Bog of Names

Leaving the path
Lured by an emerald
I wander into the Bog of Names

As is so often the case in January, I have spent a lot of the month latching onto a couple of albums from last year that were slow burners which I had not yet given the chance to click with me yet.

Richard Dawson’s Peasant is an album that it has taken me a while to connect with  a fact that has surprised me. I have been a fan of Dawson for a good few years now, entranced by 2011’s The Magic Bridge and later obsessed with 2014’s Nothing Important. Whilst 2017’s Peasant is recognisably Dawson, the maximalism of his latest effort will no doubt be jarring at first to anyone more familiar with his trademark Geordie primitivism.

Previously, his music has always embodied a weirdness (in the true Fisherian sense), pivoting on “the contrast between the terrestrial-empirical and the Outside“, de-naturalising the quotidian and dragging the psychedelic out from under minutiae. “Wooden Bag” from 2011’s The Magic Bridge is a perfect example of this. What begins as a Proustian encounter with a picnic box becomes an affective wormhole, an albatross around Dawson’s neck, a time capsule for his memories and something of a casket for himself.

This continues throughout the album, with glimpses of an unknown beyond that is always tied to material objects (excluding, perhaps, “Grandad’s Deathbed Hallucinations” in which Dawson takes a leap towards this Outside, set adrift in his experience by such close proximity to death).

The Magic Bridge is primarily, in this way, an album of object-oriented hauntologies.

On 2014’s Nothing Important, Dawson began to move more confidently beyond the material world, away from subject-object relations towards a more explicit body horror. Objects are still orbited, of course, but this orbit is straining.

I don’t care about these things
Why do they remain so clear while the faces of my loved ones disappear?

The masterpiece that is “The Vile Stuff” frighteningly reveals the between that the rest of the album seems to wallow in. It feels, in both its length and structure, like a fragment removed from a larger whole, thrashing about in a purgatorial limbo. It is an extended intermission between worlds, entirely transitory.

This transition is perhaps between the Proustian memories of childhood and the immanently affective now, and Dawson navigates the currents of this emotive templexity, a labyrinth of inner sense.

Whereas The Magic Bridge‘s “Grandad’s Deathbed Hallucinations” was the only song to take a speculative leap towards visions of a beyond triggered by death-fired neurons, Nothing Important often disturbs in that it evokes Dawson’s own deathbed hallucinations way ahead of time.

The horror of this, notably entangled with layers of Christian symbolism, is oddly relatable despite itself. Over on YouTube, comments on The Vile Stuff echo this.

I’m from Korea, and this song is still perfectly relatable as a narrative of what the class troublemakers will get up to on a school trip. Just switch out the colloquialisms, names and brands to the local equivalents and it absolutely fits. Funny how the human experience is pretty much the same regardless of where you live.

How strange that so many would feel this way about a song so demented in its symbolism and hallucinatory imagery. This has always been Dawson’s strength: in his lyricism and his style he expresses the universal-particular. Either that, or perhaps the demonism of Nothing Important is just too occulted for some to notice.

The most affecting passage seems to be the reemergance of adulthood in “The Vile Stuff” before Dawson is finally dispatched to this elsewhere that has been haunting him.

My neighbour Andrew lost two fingers to a Staffie-cross
Whilst jogging over Cow Hill with a Pepperami in his bum-bag
He’s a junior partner at James & James no-win-no-fee solicitor
Thinking of relocating to a Buddhist monastery in Halifax

He reckons I should try meditation
He reckons it could benefit my peace of mind

My bedroom walls are papered with the stripes of Newcastle United
Between which I perceive the presence of a horse-headed figure
Holding aloft a flaming quiver of bramble silhouettes
He is the King of Children
Singing like a boiler: ‘Tomorrow is on its way’

He returns, strangely, for a final verse but then with that we linger within another primitivist instrumental, allowing the voice of Dawson to drift off, unseen.

On the new album, Peasant, we are introduced to Richard Dawson as the bard out of time, role-playing his way through the minds of a pre-medieval community of Outsiders. Each song title signifies its subject Herald, Ogre, Soldier, Weaver, Prostitute, Shapeshifter, Scientist, Hob, Beggar, No-one, Masseuse the quotidian and the forgotten, the frightful and the unseen.

From Danny Riley’s review for The Quietus:

…perhaps the most notable move Dawson has made in ‘Peasant’ is the ambition of its central theme: how community can be reclaimed as a meaningful force in society.

Community is a word that he mentions a lot in interviews, and one that’s closely connected to another term that he’s expressly uncomfortable with – folk music. Since the folk revival of the mid 20th century the term has increasingly slipped from referring to the canon of anonymous song passed down through generations to sensitive singer-songwriters a la Nick Drake – a shift towards folk as a generic term and away from a functional music made anonymously, by and for the community. Now, it’s become essentially an aesthetic – see Mumford and Sons and those top hat-wearing bourgeois gypsies you get at festivals. Perhaps that’s why Dawson is more keen on the term “ritual community music”, suggesting something more primal and yet more pertinent to our times. ‘Peasant’, a cobbled-together beast of pop, free improv and acoustic and ethnic music, might be said to embody that new kind of functionalism.

How is Dawson’s folk community, outside the now-popular understanding of those two words, constituted? Is it “constituted” at all? From an interview with The Guardian:

“I was thinking about how a community might be,” he says, “how the worst of it would be gossip, and the best part of it would be support, so I was trying to hint at that.”

In a 2016 interview with Clash, he says:

“The idea of community is not defined for me by place, it’s defined by like minds and a willingness to step into each other’s shoes.”

“It’s a blurry notion,” he argues. “It doesn’t really exist, as such. Things must always be entering into it. It’s just not important, is it? These words. I’m not concerned about it either way, really.”

I’m reminded of Giorgio Agamben’s book The Coming Community here. Why Agamben specifically? I’m not sure. I think maybe it is the similar entangled interest in community and the medieval.

The central conceit of Agamben’s book is his concept of being-whatever. He writes:

Whatever is the figure of pure singularity. Whatever singularity has no identity, it is not determinate with respect to a concept, but neither is it simply indeterminate; rather it is determined only through its relation to an idea, that is, to the totality of its possibilities. […] Belonging, being-such, is here only the relation of an empty and indeterminate totality. [2]

Is this not what Dawson populates his album with: whatever-beings? Each song representing an indeterminate totality, a fictional community of types denied the specificity of subjectivity, instead only referring to an idea of a subject.

Whatever adds to singularity only an emptiness, only a threshold: Whatever is a singularity plus an empty space, a singularity that is finite and, nonetheless, indeterminate according to a concept. But a singularity plus an empty space can only be a pure exteriority, a pure exposure. Whatever, in this sense, is the event of an outside. [3]

The move from Nothing Important to Peasant is, following Agamben’s lead, perhaps an ethical one (his introductions to the songs live certainly seem to show an ethical and political consideration of community that is broader than the boundaries of folk music) but perhaps my move from Dawson to Agamben is an entirely irrelevant and tangential one… The direction of Dawson’s art is nonetheless intensely intriguing to me. For all the contemporary resonance of an album set in a fictional medieval township, I can’t help but wonder why…

As Dawson continues to probe the Outside, with others joining him on his quest, the Outside is now somewhat further off. The transcendental horizon has shifted as he seeks it through these eleven vectors.

Herald. Ogre. Soldier. Weaver. Prostitute. Shapeshifter. Scientist. Hob. Beggar. No-one. Masseuse.

Each represents a limit that is to each their own. We are familiar with Dawson’s by now. Now he seeks others. The Bog of Names is a community of limits.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 27-28

[2] Ibid., 67

[3] Ibid.

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