It's a hard time to be happy, and Richard Dawson knows it. The British guitarist and songwriter would hardly be the first artist to make music that reflects the chaos and uncertainty of a time when the world's political outlook has turned ugly and the divide between the haves and have-nots grows wider by the minute. Dawson's 2019 album 2020 is certainly a work of its time, reflecting the social, political, and economic uncertainty that has swept the globe. But rather than dealing in sloganeering or checking off the familiar outrages that are part of our collective existence, Dawson casts his gaze on the daily lives of ordinary people trying to live their lives despite the fractures in the society around them. Whether it's the poor slob who has come to despise his job ("Civil Servant" and "Fulfilment Centre"), the novice runner whose fears become reality when his Kurdish neighbors are attacked ("Jogging"), the community reacting in a variety of ways to a flood that has disabled the town ("The Queen's Head"), or an ordinary man confronted with mortality and pain ("Dead Dog in an Alleyway"), Dawson makes his characters and their anxieties disarmingly real thanks to the relentless details of his lyrics and the flat but eloquent tone of his voice. Even when the stories deal with the personal rather than the political, Dawson makes them part of a larger malaise that brings the pieces together in the service of a greater statement. The tangled sounds of Dawson's guitar, by turns acoustic and quiet, and electric and rich with fuzz -- along with the occasional bursts of electronic noise -- provide an effective backdrop for these songs, and if Dawson hardly sounds like a singer, that works to his favor on this album, matching the modest poignancy of the lyrics. Richard Dawson is an eccentric but clear-eyed observer of the human condition, and just as he brought something fresh to the U.K. folk tradition on 2017's Peasant, 2020 reveals how he sees the details of everyday life in a way that slips past most writers. And if it isn't always fun, the honesty and passion in this music deliver more than enough reward for your time.
by Mark Deming