The Glass Trunk is a record of intense contrasts. The overall structure is repeated juxtaposition of a strophic a cappella song with two flashes of electric guitar and pedal harp improvisation. While this structure resembles a fixed lyrical form, within it the songs are free to cycle endlessly into their stories and the modal improvisations are free from conventional phrasing. The vivid pastoral lyrics thematically leap back and forth from birth to death, from beauty to violence, from love to loss, and from will to fate.
But Newcastle’s Richard Dawson is more interested in how these contrasts interact and influence our perceptions of each polarity. In opener “A Parent’s Address to His Firstborn Son on the Day of His Birth”, the father espouses his love and hope for his boy with confidence. Then a mass of singers erupts into open-voiced drones that clash against the melody; is the tumultuous reality of the music undermining or strengthening the lyrical idealism? “Poor Old Horse” graphically details the inept killing of a horse without giving a reason for its suffering and struggle. When we later empathize with a blind child happily describing the textures of a taxidermy exhibit to his mother, only to hear him mention the mane of a “poor old horse”, we cringe; violence undercuts the innocent moment, but violence also allowed it to happen in the first place. Repeated half steps anchor improvisations I and II, string bends color III and IV, closely dissonant feedback superimposes through IX and X: this progression reaches for the microtones between Western note divisions, more abstractly the overlap between two distinct points. Paradoxically, the impressive compositional unity of this record is a result of Dawson’s layering of stark opposites.
The Glass Trunk is a product of a Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums project called “Half Memory”. Dawson was invited to explore their collection of letters, diaries, and photographs, and to respond with music. The premise makes a lot of sense, as memory and preservation is a primary theme and purpose of folk music. What makes this record stunning is that Dawson musically represents the churning maw of collective memory with the tangles of improvisation and unhinged chorus, and the singular lives it births and consumes through each solo performance.
The Glass Trunk is a palindromic tone poem reaching for the overlap between the past and present, “flowing both in one direction”.
From “The Magic Bridge”