When approaching Gareth Dickson’s new record it seems almost obligatory to dwell for a moment on the fact that it is released on 12k records, a label that does not usually deal with music that has lyrics, let alone releases by singer-songwriters. Dickson has toured extensively as a guitarist with folk singer Vashti Bunyan. His own music combines acoustic guitar finger-picking with an attention to atmosphere, resulting in what one might call ambient folk songs. (You can stream one of his previous albums, the lovely Collected Recordings, here.) Quite a Way Away is certainly something new enough in 12k terms to catch the eye, but it is less of a radical break than it might seem. Listen to the acoustically oriented ambience of Illuha’s recent gem Shizuku, and its inclusion of the spoken word in the form of Japanese poetry, trace the gentle contours of Ballads of the Research Department by The Boats, which also included some singing, and focus on the gently plucked guitar of Kane Ikin’s Contrail (review here), and it will be clear that while Quite a Way Away is something of a shift of genre for 12k, it has a great deal in common with its immediate predecessors in terms of aesthetic. All share a careful hush, a gentle attentiveness to delicate, small, mostly acoustic sounds. Listening back over these releases brought to mind a haiku that appeared on the sleeve of Tetsu Inoue and Carl Stone’s 2001 collaboration pict.soul on the Cycling ’74 label:
The soft breeze that stirs
this vast undulating field
deafens the spider.
Those lines capture for me 12k’s approach to music, music made for the spider rather than for the stadium, inviting the listener to find expansive worlds of sound in the rustle of a soft breeze through grass.
Despite an opening track punctuated by the insistent ping of high guitar notes, Dickson’s new album is built upon a steady underlying flutter of caressed strings and a softly muttered vocal style that requires an attentive ear to resolve into speech. While sometimes slipping brightly into the foreground, the guitar most often provides a gently melodic background of rolling motion, with added reverb giving a subdued, slightly cavernous feel to the sound. Rather than using the soft instrumental background as a stage on which to step forward into the limelight, Dickson’s voice joins the guitar in the wings, matching its gently urgent hush. At times I am left with the sense that the center of the song itself is some third, unstated thing, a silent presence around which guitar and vocal respectfully circle, offering support and knowing gestures but not wanting to intrude too brashly.
The lyrics also circle tentatively around absences, gesturing towards them more than reaching out and grasping. Absence, waiting, and reaching for connection are the dominant themes. “Noon” reworks a poem by Stevie Smith, Not Waving but Drowning, that speaks of moans unheard, vestiges of life given up for dead, and gestures for help misinterpreted – the deeply needed connection to others fails to materialize. In “Get Together,” an apparently assertive opening line (“I want you to get together”) is followed a string of uncertain questions: “Who was here before now? Was it only you and I all night? Could’ve sworn there were more now, what is that pale orange light?” The elusive third presence is alluded to, but not named: “When I count there are only you and I. Who was here before now? Silently waiting.” In and around the conversation between you and I, and between voice and guitar, there hovers a silent third, just beyond the reach of mind and skin. The resolution of the questions, “our soul is in the desert, silently waiting”, resolves nothing, and yet seems to fit, evoking a spiritual posture of expectant listening.
The following track even more briefly and enigmatically evokes the dance of intimacy and absence: “This is a kiss, it is all there is, take it it’s for you, only now you don’t exist.” In the album’s closing track the poles seem reversed – it seems open to interpretation whether it is the lost other or the singer himself who has gone missing. “Something is reaching an end”, he begins, “how careless of me to have got so old”. We then drift into a long series of couplets that allude to the biblical story of Jonah, the anti-prophet who heard God’s call and ran in the opposite direction, becoming lost at sea (drowning, not waving) but in the end failing to escape God’s patience and forbearance. “Jonah it’s a big old sea, and there is nowhere I can’t be; Jonah it’s a big old sea, and you are cold and cowardly…are you on the run from me?” Is Jonah standing in for the singer’s absent beloved (“I will love you forever”, the song insists), who can be won back with infinite patience? Or is it God who is beckoning from “behind time” and addressing the singer, who has turned cold and fearful, inviting him back from the cold of separation to love?
It is in this persistent thread of patient, whispered waiting in the face of absence, and the sense that though the waiting risks the suffocation of loss, it might also conjure a mystical presence, that lyrics and music become wedded. The circling hush of voice and guitar expressing the expectant heart of the poetry. This persistent lyrical and musical reaching out for a silently present absence/absent presence expands the album from a gentle and pretty collection of songs into a place of quiet within which the attentive listener can be stilled and brought to their own point of patient seeking beyond the boundaries of self.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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