Richard Dawson / Circle: Henki Album Review

No one writes about humanity – our hopes and dreams, obsessions and foolishness – just like Richard Dawson. A singer and guitarist from Newcastle upon Tyne in the north of England, Dawson works loosely in the folk tradition, though this hardly begins to explain the breadth and eccentricity of his songs. For a moment you might find him singing a tale of alcoholic misfortune on a school trip; the next, to venture back to early medieval Bryneich, or to hymn the lives of the poor souls who pack packages in an online retail store. Verily, 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 might think it’s not about humans at all: each of its seven tracks is named after a plant. That, of course, is 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 is translated as something along the lines of “spirit” or “ghost”, while acknowledging that its true meaning is difficult to determine .

Circle and Dawson made Spirit in seizures and starts. They first shared demos externally, then met for personal recording sessions in Pori on the Finnish coast, before finally finalizing the album remotely when Europe went into lockdown in the spring of 2020. This extended gestation period seems to have worked to its advantage. From its botanical theme, something magnificent takes shape: a suite of stories dealing with ancient history and deep time, touching on themes of human wear and tear, tragedy and mysteries after death.

Dawson sings in a bold and apologetic shout that sometimes whizzes up into higher octaves unexpectedly. His guitar playing is just as characteristic: sounding chords dispensed with knotty dexterity. But where he really excels is as a storyteller, and Spirit have some particularly floride examples of the form. “Silene” is the true story of a 32,000-year-old seed buried by a squirrel, later picked from the permafrost by Russian scientists and eventually germinated in a laboratory. “Ivy” tells the myth of the Greek god Dionysus, who gave King Midas his gold-creating powers.

The songs often lean hard into the interpretation – “Unfortunately, the mushroom cultures we took with us / have begun to decompose,” Dawson sings on “Cooksonia.” But as the words fall from his lips, they assume the quality of parables, and their close narratives encourage the listener to hunt in them in search of deeper meanings.

Now about 40 albums in their careers, Circles’ bid for various rock sub-genres – prog, hard, glam, space, kraut – has been performed with virtuoso technicality and camp extravagance, equal parts Neu! and Judas Priest. Most obviously, they give Dawson’s songs a sense of speed and scale. “Methuselah” races forth in a power-metal charge with rippling synthesizers and roaring thunder. A few minutes inside “Ivy”, the guitars and drums lock themselves in a motor pulse, and the song only gets bigger from there, driven by a sense of unearthly propulsion. But Circle’s musicality is also expressed in more textured ways. The 12-minute-long “Silphium” is adorned with decorative piano and sleek synths, and around the center it falls into an expanded jazz-rock segment before dusting itself off for one last, triumphant repetition.

Death is everywhere Spirit, sometimes tragicomic. “Methusalem” is the story of a man who sets out to find one of the world’s oldest trees, even named after a supernatural ancient biblical patriarch; the joke is that he can only prove that he has found it, by chopping it down. Other times, death feels mysterious and unrecognizable: In “Lily,” a nurse at Newcastle Hospital recalls the paranormal events that have followed the death of them in their custody. “Black candles / Flowering in the doorway / Petals unfold around me,” Dawson ponders, and Circle amplifies the strange with eerie opera chorus.

In a catalog already known for strange, Spirit perhaps Richard Dawson’s strangest album to date. But his ideas are fertilized by the peculiar twists of these songs; the more Dawson and Circle lean into their eccentricities, the more their music resonates. No matter what Dawson writes about, he really writes about people – the way we choose to live our lives and the strange and horrible things that hit us along the way. Spirit blows these themes up in widescreen that unfolds across continents, centuries and even the afterlife. It feels deep, even as the true meaning of its songs – theirs Spirit, if you will – slide through your fingers like air.

Buy: Rough trade

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