CD: Richard Hawley, Lady's Bridge

Sheffield's answer to Morrissey returns with a work that's awash with dark, brooding brilliance, writes Graeme Thomson

When Arctic Monkeys won last year's Mercury Music Prize they offered this immortal line as they collected their bounty: 'Someone call 999 - Richard Hawley's been robbed!' This was part matey Sheffield solidarity and part due recognition of the undeniably fine job Hawley had done on Coles Corner, his fourth album released in 2005. But it was a little too generous. The best of Coles Corner was so brilliantly persuasive it very effectively masked the record's main shortcoming: namely, that a few of the songs didn't quite make the grade.

Perhaps Hawley reached a similar conclusion, because Lady's Bridge maintains an almost unfeasibly high standard of songwriting from first to last. It's closely related to Coles Corner, only bigger, better, more. Now, the rockers cut like switchblades - the slap-back strut of 'Serious', in particular, is lethal - and the ballads pack a far heftier emotional punch.

It's in the deep blues and purples of the latter that you'll find the record's heart. Onstage, Hawley displays the immaculate timing of an old music hall comic - song; gag; song; gag - but in the studio he surrenders almost completely to a luxurious sadness. If you discount the cover - which is hilarious, surely intentionally - the chuckles on Lady's Bridge are few. 'How did our lives turn out so bad?' he croons on the title track, and there's plenty more where that came from. The songs are filled with dark water - rivers roll, seas call - and departure, Hawley casting himself alternately as either a lone wolf, forever heading out the door as the sun rises, or the one left behind, 'lost here in the grey'.

His voice rises brilliantly to the challenge of expressing all this turbulence. It has certainly never sounded richer than on 'Roll River Roll', which sweeps along in such a beguiling manner you almost forget that it's a song about death. Hawley's supposed vocal similarities to the likes of Johnny Cash, Scott Walker and Roy Orbison have always been a bit of a red herring. The swooning opener 'Valentine' may build from a slow bolero into an Orbisonian crescendo, but no one really sings like The Big O; the same goes for Cash and Walker. Hawley is actually closest to Neil Hannon and, especially, Morrissey, that other purveyor of dark northern pop, skewed rockabilly and dramatic balladry. Give or take half an octave vocally, there's not much daylight between 'Lady Solitude' or 'The Sea Calls' and 'The Lazy Sunbathers' or even 'I Know it's Over'.

Hawley does occasionally flirt with modernity. 'The Sun Refused to Shine' is a departure, a spiky, atmospheric drone that brings to mind U2 on Xanax playing surf music, but the rest of Lady's Bridge simply sounds like a man intent on honing his craft. 'Tonight the Streets Are Ours' skates in straight from the Empire Ballroom circa 1964 and comes close to pastiche, but Hawley has grown adept at negotiating that tightrope, presumably because he's fully aware that what he does shouldn't really work: he slicks back his hair, wears shiny suits, and occasionally goes riding straight into Lee Marvin territory ('With a bedroll and a blanket/ And just the rocks to lay my bones,' he sings on 'Dark Road', a clip-cloppy cowboy dream). All told, he's rarely less than a kiss-curl away from Vic Reeves's pub singer.

And yet, Lady's Bridge does work. Brilliantly. It's the kind of old fashioned, classic-album-in-waiting that demands a full evening's contemplation, a decent bottle of wine, and 12-inches of cardboard around it. And if doesn't win any baubles this time around, Hawley really should call the cops.

Download: 'Roll River Roll'; 'Lady Solitude'; 'Valentine'; 'The Sun Refused to Shine'

Contributor

Graeme Thomson

The GuardianTramp

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