Richard Dawson is on a certain creative streak. The last 12 months have already seen a great album from the Bard of Tyneside – Spirita collaboration with the finnish metal alchemists Circle. Now here’s another one: The ruby cord presents itself as the conclusion of a trilogy of albums which Dawson began in 2017. The first of three, Peasant, investigated a number of colorful figures living in the kingdom of Bryneich in the Middle Ages around the 6th century AD. It was followed by 2020, which took an empathetic look at the lives of those who occupy familiar spaces at the turn of the 21st century – the football pitch, the local pub, the Amazon fulfillment centre. What is the next step ? To the future, of course – more specifically 500 years in the future, in a sort of liminal reality that straddles real life and something more virtual.
It is certainly within the framework of Dawson’s powers to perform a sort of neon-lit space opera. But it’s not this album. The ruby cord certainly has some epic qualities – on the one hand it’s long, lasting an hour and 20 minutes, and kicking off with an opening track, “The Hermit”, which itself spans 40 scenic minutes. But where 2020 seemed direct and frank, both in its music and in the way it told its story, The ruby cord feels more cryptic, dense and complex, as if Dawson – never ambitious in his art – voluntarily raises the stakes.
There’s a feat of imaginative creation going on here, and it’s only by scrutinizing the lyric sheet that you can truly begin to understand the shape of the world that Dawson Created. The ruby cord takes place in an augmented reality, with humans existing somewhere between the world we know and a virtual space in which the lines between history, mythology and imagination blur. On “The Hermit”, the familiar mingles with the profoundly strange. One minute, Dawson sketches a bucolic scene from “horn groves” and one “the fiery jaws of the caterpillar”; the next day he sings”an update of my visual and ontoceptual cortex”. “Museum”, meanwhile, follows an anonymous visitor as he explores a complex that contains an archive of human memory, projected onto the walls. A point of reference for The ruby cords storytelling could be science fiction – think of the rich and detailed world-building of a figure like Ursula Le Guin or Philip K Dick. Another could be video games – fantasy RPGs like Skyrim that dispense little nuggets of lore as you explore, giving you a sense of a larger world beyond your immediate experience.
The tales here can be dark and unnerving, but the mood is generally calm and quiet, largely devoid of the roar and churning we hear in most Dawson’s work. It is accompanied by a mini ensemble composed of harpist Rhodri Daviesviolinist Angharad Davies and drummer Andrew Cheetham. On “The Hermit”, they spread out in an improvisatory fashion, more concerned with melodious textures than familiar song structure. Later in the album, there are moments that turn the temperature up a few notches: the wild freakouts of the harp buried in the middle of “The Idiot”; the fiery metal riff that briefly blossoms in the heart of “The Tip of an Arrow”. But these are usually used as a kind of dramatic punctuation, and therefore are quite ephemeral.
No matter Dawson written, it tends to come back to human stories – our ambitions, our fears, our disappointments and our fragilities. You feel like he invented the setting of The ruby cord as a means of approaching such a theme from a variety of unusual points of view. “Thicker Than Water” is a gentle gallop of chiming guitars and little harp flourishes, but it contains a terrible sense of absence at its heart; the narrator, fleeing cyberspace back to the real world, traverses deserted towns and empty two-lane roads, searching for the bodies he and his family have long left behind. “The Idiot” seems to return to the territory of Peasant, a love story set in a medieval town – or possibly a simulation of one? – which ends with an enigmatic fizz. The remarkable “The Tip of an Arrow”, meanwhile, has the feel of a video game quest, with the narrator and her brave daughter Isagog crafting arrows before venturing “into the realm of the legendary Three-Faced Hare”. There, we are reminded that pride precedes the fall.
Dawson’s the work has always demanded a certain buy-in from the listener, which he traditionally repays with dividends. The ruby cord is no different, and in its depth and ambition it can go further than any of his records before. Whether Dawson’s discography was Tolkien’s books, it wouldn’t be The Hobbitor even The Lord of the Ringsbut The Silmarillionm As such, it may not be the first Richard Dawson disc that you would recommend to a newcomer: too much, too soon. Yet if you have the measure of him and his work, The ruby cord sure to impress. You come out of it with a shaken spirit, joyfully disconcerted, dazzled by the magnitude of its achievement.
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