Every once in a while, reviewing an album presents a conundrum. Richard Dawson’s latest release, The Ruby Cord, is a case in point. Having released his first album in 2007, Dawson seems to have largely aligned with the freak folk movement. That said, it appears to me that labels can only add to the confusion when attempting to describe the music on Cord. A sample of his acknowledged influences – from Sufi devotional music to Kenyan folk – only hints at what you might hear when listening to his music. This is an artist that demands you pay attention. Only with repeated plays does this album reveal itself.
The Ruby Cord is the third instalment in a trilogy that began with Peasant in 2017, continued with 2020 in 2019 and concludes with the current offering. The song cycle deals respectively with the past, present and future. In Dawson’s future, five hundred years hence, physical and ethical boundaries are no more, and life can be lived in one’s own head. Sounds hauntingly familiar already…
Opening track The Hermit is every question wrapped into a single song. Of course, when that song is forty-one minutes long, it presents a lot of opportunity for questions. Foremost among them would be “Is it prog?”. Well, yes and no. If you are looking for thematic development, musical agility and time signatures galore, the answer is a resounding NO. If you are willing to be transported by strong melodic ideas and repetition, this might be your cup of tea. Beginning with eleven-and-a-half minutes of tranquil music in three-quarter time, the song seems to go nowhere. But hold on, Dawson is trying to create a mood. Verbose as he is, even his instrumental passages are essential to the stories he tells. He wants you to understand that nothing much is happening, as the brushed drums emphasise the lack of a pulse. Languid violin and pedal harp float in and out, studiously avoiding anything that might resemble dynamics. It isn’t until the vocals enter that the music begins to go through some interesting changes but always remaining in tempo. Dawson’s voice is an acquired taste, sounding strained, as if attempting a melody just out of his reach. But those melodies are sublime and the key to what makes his music work, particularly because the songs are so densely worded and the musicianship is not exactly virtuoso. When the song does vary, it is in one of two ways – either the addition of sumptuous choral vocals or the dominance of a particular instrument, typically the violin or harp. It is the aforementioned choir that dominates the second half of the song, supplanting Dawson’s fragile voice with a repetition of the chorus on and off for some fourteen minutes. The effect is like lying in a boat on a gently rippling pond for the duration of a lazy sunny afternoon.
The remainder of The Ruby Cord is more conventionally folk-based, but in the vein of Fairport Convention more than Ralph McTell. Thicker Than Water again features Dawson’s fragile falsetto, always on the verge of shattering. The unconventional chord changes hold the song together and keep the proceedings from sounding amateurish. In Museum, the guitar and harp play in unison to create a melancholy change of mood. A subtle synth riff underscores Dawson’s repetition of the line “beautiful memories – of you”. Throughout the song, slices of life are presented like dioramas in a real museum. While purportedly set half a millennia in the future, lines like “Riot police beating climate protesters/babies being born” ground the song in the present as well.
On The Fool, Dawson is not afraid to rock out with a crunchy synth-led motif alternating with pretty acoustic verses and barely controlled pandemonium. Doubling chest voice with falsetto gives the song a weightiness that holds the song down to earth and gives it a heft that is missing when he uses only his head voice.
The Tip of an Arrow is musically the most conventional song on the album and draws a straight line to the music of Fairport. Burbling synths add color to the gorgeous acoustic guitar introduction before yielding to electric guitar and sonic dynamics. The juxtaposition of heavy, almost-metal guitars with choral vocals makes for a spectacular conclusion to the song.
As I mentioned previously, the instrumental music is as important to the storytelling as the lyrics. No-one encapsulates this perfectly. Synthesisers replicate the sound of winds blowing across a desolate landscape. A bell tolls in the distance, panning across the speakers. Is this Dawson’s vision of the end of humanity? If so, the contrast with closing track Horse and Rider is stark. Guitar and violin double the best vocal performance of the album, and the bridge provides a hopeful lift with the combination of electric and acoustic guitars. When the chorus resurrects for the final time, it offers a true catharsis. Maybe this isn’t the end of humankind after all? Or is it the planet rejoicing in finally being rid of a persistent problem?
On paper, nothing about this album should work. Dawson’s vocals can be grating. The songs can be stretched to a breaking point, padded by repetition and verbosity. Unvarying time signatures and unflashy instrumental work. The Ruby Cord, however, is not an album about blowing its own horn. Rather, it is about patience, listening, and finding the skill in simplicity. Give it time, and you just might find yourself attached to this Cord. I did.
01. The Hermit (41:00)
02. Thicker Than Water (5:35)
03. The Fool (5:46)
04. Museum (8:06)
05. The Tip of an Arrow (10:06)
06. No-one (2:22)
07. Horse and Rider (7:54)
Total Time – 79:49
Richard Dawson – Guitar, Bass, Synthesiser, Vocals
Angharad Davies – Violin
Rhodri Davies – Pedal Harp, Chorus
Andrew Chatham – Drums
Dawn Bothwell, Nev Clay, Kate Craddock, Vic Eynon, Anna Girvan, Rachel Macarthur, Sally Pilkington, Cathy Tyler, Phil Tyler, Claire Welford – Chorus
Record Label: Domino Recording Company
Country of Origin: England
Date of Release: 18th November 2022