Richard Dawson / Circle: Henki
Nobody writes about humanity—our hopes and dreams, obsessions and follies—quite 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. One minute you might find him singing a tale of alcoholic misadventure on a school trip; the next, venturing back to the early medieval kingdom of Bryneich, or hymning the lives of the poor souls packing parcels in an online retail warehouse. Truly, all human life is here.
Dawson has made a habit of pushing at the boundaries of his work, and his new album Henki is no different. At first glance you might think it’s not about people at all: Each of its seven tracks is named after a plant. Of course, that isn’t 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 “ghost,” while acknowledging that its true meaning is hard to pin down.
Circle and Dawson made Henki in fits and starts. They first shared demos remotely, then met for in-person recording sessions at Pori on the Finnish coast, before finally completing the album remotely as Europe entered lockdown in spring 2020. This extended gestation seems to have worked in its favor. From its botanical theme, something magnificent takes shape: a suite of stories that deal with ancient history and deep time, touching on themes of human toil, tragedy, and the mysteries of the afterlife.
Dawson sings in a bold and unapologetic holler that sometimes scurries up into higher octaves unexpectedly. His guitar playing is equally distinctive: clanging chords dispensed with knotty dexterity. But where he really excels is as a storyteller, and Henki has some especially florid 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 lab. “Ivy” relates the myth of the Greek god Dionysus, who granted King Midas his gold-creating powers.
The songs often lean hard into 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 narratives encouraging the listener to hunt within them in search of deeper meanings.
Now some 40 albums into their career, Circle’s take on various rock subgenres—prog, hard, glam, space, kraut—is 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 along in a power-metal charge, with rippling synthesizers and crashing thunder. A couple of minutes into “Ivy,” the guitars and drums lock into a motorik pulse, and the song only gets bigger from there, powered by a sense of unearthly propulsion. But Circle’s musicality also manifests in more textural ways. The 12-minute “Silphium” is adorned with decorative piano and sleek synths, and around its midpoint descends into an extended jazz-rock segment before dusting itself down for a final, triumphant reprise.
Death is everywhere on Henki, sometimes tragicomic. “Methuselah” is the tale of a man who sets out to find one of the world’s oldest trees, itself named after a preternaturally old biblical patriarch; the joke is, he can only prove he’s found it by chopping it down. Other times, death feels mysterious and unknowable: In “Lily,” a Newcastle hospital nurse recalls the paranormal events that have followed the passing of those in their care. “Black lights/Blooming in the doorway/Petals unfold around me,” muses Dawson, and Circle amp up the weirdness with eerie operatic chorusing.
In a catalog already noted for strangeness, Henki might be Richard Dawson’s strangest album to date. But his ideas are fertilized by these songs’ peculiar twists and turns; the more Dawson and Circle lean into their eccentricities, the more their music resonates. Whatever Dawson writes about, he’s really writing about people—the ways we choose to live our lives, and the strange and awful things that befall us along the way. Henki blows up these themes into widescreen, unfolding across continents, centuries, and even the afterlife. It feels profound, even as the true meaning of its songs—their Henki, if you will—slip through the fingers like air.
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