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Notes on Richard Dawson's 'The Magic Bridge'

Posted on Tuesday, 26 February 2013 | No Comments

I originally wrote this for my friend's blog The Click of a Light. With Richard Dawson having recently been profiled by The Quietus and heading out on a UK tour imminently, it seemed a nice time to dust off this piece on his wonderful 2011 album 'The Magic Bridge'...

One of the first lessons in music journalism has always been: ditch the first person. There’s good reason for this – for a writer who’s just starting out (or, more importantly, a writer who just doesn’t really know how or what they’re trying to communicate), the first person can lead a wide world of critical sins. It’s the road to description over analysis, to pointless clauses and explanation (“in my opinion” – well, duh), to terrible narcissistic drivel more interested on unimportant trivia surrounding the writer’s life than the subject at hand. When in doubt, keep it impersonal.

Yet here, there is no option but to allow for the cloak to slip. The I is unavoidable – my relationship to The Magic Bridge is too personal, my analysis of it too entwined with my own experiences and thoughts for anything else to be possible. It’s a record that invites closeness, that aims to draw the listener in deeper and deeper until the day comes that when they place it in the player for another spin, what they’re really hearing isn’t the tones and notes and sounds of Richard Dawson but their own past brought bad to them with perfect vividness, Proust’s madeleine in CD form.

Part of this, for me, must be down to having witnessed the slow birthing and evolution of the record. Having been stunned at first sight when seeing Dawson play a quiet, third-on-the-bill folk set to a quiet End Bar - how we miss thee – on a Monday night four years ago, I became one of those lesser spotted Dawson-ologists that linger in the North-East of England, trading tales and recollections of bounteous performances witnessed and speculations over that small, rare but treasured recording output. After an unusual absence from the musical scene (save for the occasional performance under his experimental side-project Eyeballs), he started to emerge from this hibernation around two years ago, playing covert little on-the-day and unannounced appearances upstairs at The Telegraph or in other little venues, touting his three-quarter guitar and elemental voice once again. 

But now the sets were unknown, full of these new, grandiose pieces constructed during his temporary absence, and to even the most amateur level of Dawson aficionado, it was evident something remarkable was happening. Out of intimate, personal observations of the contents of wooden bags, of muggings and of deathbed moments, grand metaphysical dramas seemed to emerge: with his increasingly intricate guitar playing and song structuring and his ever powerful vocal range, it became evident that at each of his gigs over the next two years, the audience was being treated to the rare and beautiful sight of an artist just reaching their prime.

Yet as rapturous performance followed rapturous performance, as different structures were tried out and instrumental pieces were debuted, dropped and reworked, something seemed to be missing. There was no record of these beautiful, haunting works having ever been crafted or played: it felt as though they could plunge over the cliff into non-existence at any opportunity. And so the wait went on and on for posterity to finally thrown its arms around these songs.

But here we are, and here it is. I can hold the case in my hand, I can put the CD into my computer, and I can press play and listen. And what comes out isn’t an over-processed, clinical studio production, nor a scruffy live recording. One of the minor miracles of The Magic Bridge is how perfectly judged the fidelity is: low-fi enough to suit the unassuming, homespun nature of the material, but with just enough precision to let the songs shine. Moving from his customary acoustic over to a mildly distorted electric for much of the recording could have radically changed the nature of the performance, but once again this proves a shrewd move. At a time when our notions of folk music have been commandeered in the name of conservatism - small and big c – and when the acoustic guitar has become synonymous with the on-going march of The New Boring upon our nation (that beautifully apt term for the atrocities committed by the likes of Mumford & Sons and Ed Sheeran in the name of dumbing down and battening down the hatches on imagination and dissent), its firmly shifts Dawson’s art away from the mass-produced sludge. 

 More significantly, on the four instrumental tracks on the album, it adds a wild energy and an attack that helps the record sustain its energy even when Dawson steps away from the mike. While this might seem a slightly high instrumental/song ratio, Dawson’s supreme talent and guitar playing keeps things from mindless onanism. And of the four instrumentals, it’s the longest, the nine-minute marvel of Newcastle, that impresses the most. From sombre jazzy beginnings, the track slowly picks up movement, taking increasingly bold and impressionistic moves that outline the shape of the city. As it ebbs and flows, you feel both the urgency and tension of the modern city and the exquisite drama and beauty of the surrounding area. For me, listening back to this piece brings back every train ride to and from the city: seeing the picturesque of Durham fade to be replaced with the tower blocks and housing of Gateshead until the Tyne is crossed, and there rushing towards you lays Central Station and the welcomes and promises of a beloved city centre. It’s a masterpiece of build and release, an ideal travelling companion.

But it’s the six vocal songs that form the mighty, indomitable heart of The Magic Bridge. Blurring the lines between confessionalist, abstract and metaphysical lyricism, Dawson spins six tales of heartbreak, longing, loss and sensual experience. One of the record’s crowning jewels, Wooden Bag, spins a yarn about everyday objects – sticks of expired toffee, contraceptives, stolen ballpoint pens – into a history of modern man, tracing around the edges of everyday existence and looking for the poetry that lies within, all beneath a beautifully looping, flowing guitar line. Again, folk traditionalism is met with jazz disruption and the intrusion of modern ephemera, keeping this away from the museum and pushing it squarely into the here and now.

The real trick Dawson achieves is that the more personal his anecdotes and tales get – the self-descriptive account of his grandfather’s passing in Grandad’s Deathbed Hallucinations, the tale of want and hope in We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed, the illness and loss of eyesight detailed so movingly and so imaginatively in the nine-minute centrepiece Man Has Been Struck Down By Hands Unseen – the more universal and affecting they get. Rather than aiming for the lowest common denominator, Dawson presents the life and experiences of a real flesh and blood human, with all of the joys and defeats and triumphs and flaws and greatness that implies. As such, there’s an empathy and a depth to Dawson’s work quite unlike any other songwriter currently working . On The Magic Bridge, there is no division between the real man and the artist – they are one and the same.

All this is just more meaningless words for the void though if this majestic album remains overlooked. Richard Dawson is not cool: he is no hipster-friendly, blog-ready, photoshopped, ready for Pitchfork to hype and drop or for the front cover of the NME. He is not pioneering a new sound of 2012, releasing a free mp3 or starting a fashion label. He is not the latest sex icon nor an aristocrat nor the young new pretender or any of the other categories that have become the only ways so much of the internet media can cope with music. He is nothing but heart. And what a heart it is.

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