Richard Dawson / Circle: Henki Album Review

No one writes about humanity – our hopes and dreams, obsessions and follies – like Richard Dawson. Dawson, a singer and guitarist from Newcastle upon Tyne in the north of England, works loosely in the folk tradition, although this hardly explains the scope and eccentricity of his songs. One minute you might hear him sing a story about alcoholic misadventures on a school trip; the next, venture back to the early medieval kingdom of Bryneich, or hymn the lives of the poor souls packing parcels in an online retail warehouse. Really, all human life is here.

Dawson has made it a habit to push the boundaries of his work and his new album Spirit is no different. At first glance, you’d think it’s not about people at all: each of the seven tracks is named after a plant. That is of course not the whole story. The album is a collaboration with the Finnish group Circle, and the title is a Finnish word – Circle’s Jussi Lehtisalo says it translates as something like ‘spirit’ or ‘spirit’, while acknowledging that the true meaning is hard to figure out.

Circle and Dawson made Spirit with trial and error. They first shared demos remotely, then met for in-person recording sessions in Pori on the Finnish coast, before finally finishing the album remotely when Europe went into lockdown in the spring of 2020. This longer pregnancy seems to have worked in his favor. Something beautiful takes shape from the botanical theme: a series of stories that deal with ancient history and deep time, touching on themes such as human toil, tragedy and the mysteries of the afterlife.

Dawson sings in a bold and unashamed scream that sometimes unexpectedly rushes to higher octaves. His guitar playing is equally distinctive: jingling chords without gnarly dexterity. But where he really excels is as a storyteller, and Spirit has some particularly flowery examples of the form. “Silene” is the true story of a 32,000-year-old seed buried by a squirrel, later plucked from the permafrost by Russian scientists and finally germinated in a laboratory. “Ivy” tells the myth of the Greek god Dionysus, who bestowed his gold-creating powers on King Midas.

The songs often lean hard in the exposition – “Unfortunately, the fungal cultures we brought with us/have started to degrade,” Dawson sings on “Cooksonia”. But as the words fall from his lips, they take on the quality of parables, their dense stories encouraging the listener to hunt within them in search of deeper meanings.

Now with some 40 albums in their career, Circle’s take on various rock subgenres – prog, hard, glam, space, kraut – is executed with virtuoso technicalities and camp extravagance, equal parts Neu! and Judas Priest. Most obviously, they give Dawson’s songs a sense of speed and scale. “Methusalem” races on in a power-metal load, with rippling synthesizers and thunderous thunder. A few minutes after ‘Ivy’ the guitars and drums drop into a motor pulse, and the song only gets bigger from there, propelled by a sense of unearthly propulsion. But Circle’s musicality is also reflected in more texture. The 12-minute “Silphium” is adorned with decorative piano and sleek synths, and around the midpoint it descends into an extended jazz-rock segment before dusting itself for a final, triumphant reprise.

Death is everywhere Spiritsometimes tragicomic. “Methuselah” is the story of a man who goes in search of one of the world’s oldest trees, itself named after a supernaturally ancient biblical patriarch; the joke is that he can only prove he found it by chopping it down. Other times, death feels mysterious and unknowable: in ‘Lily’, a hospital nurse in Newcastle recalls the paranormal events that followed the deaths of those in their care. “Black lights/Blooming in the doorway/Petals unfold around me,” Dawson muses, and Circle amplify the craziness with eerie operatic chorus.

In a catalog already known for strangeness, Spirit arguably Richard Dawson’s strangest album yet. But his ideas are fertilized by the quirky twists and turns of these songs; the more Dawson and Circle lean into their eccentricities, the more their music resonates. Whatever Dawson writes about, he really writes about people – the way we choose to live our lives, and the strange and horrible things that happen to us along the way. Spirit blows up these themes in widescreen and unfolds across continents, ages and even the afterlife. It feels profound, even if the true meaning of his songs – their Spirit, if you will – like air slipping through the fingers.


Buying: Rough Trading

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