Richard Hawley: Standing At the Sky's Edge – review

Richard Hawley does something of a stylistic about-face without sacrificing any of his unique appeal

From the members of Traffic abandoning Birmingham for Berkshire, to Fleet Foxes' longing for a simpler life where "green apples hang from the green apple tree", the lure of a pastoral utopia is one of rock's most pervasive myths. But it has to be said, it's had more likely adherents than Richard Hawley. With his quiff and drape coat, his omnipresent cigarette and his air of a man who's recently left the snug in his local and is in some hurry to return there, he just doesn't seem like the bucolic type. He once recorded a live album in a cave in the Peak District, but there's a suspicion he was drawn there less by the desire to commune with nature than the cave's name, which gave him the chance to call the resulting CD Richard Hawley Live at the Devil's Arse. And yet, here he is, four songs into his seventh solo album, singing a song called Down in the Woods, on which he admonishes lovers of television and the motor car and offers "stolen love under a canopy of trees" as an antidote to the ills of modern life.

Long-term fans might be forgiven for feeling a little faint at the news that the one-time Roy Orbison of the River Don appears to be both getting it together in the country and letting it all hang out. They could steady their nerves by noting these sentiments are set not to the standard countryside-conjuring musical backdrop of acoustic guitar and whimsical woodwind, but a furious, distorted riff that sounds not unlike the Stooges' 1969 embellished by layers of corrosive feedback. In a certain light, the protagonist could be proposing an illicit affair, but it seems more likely he's trying to rekindle a bit of youthful passion by luring his wife away from the kids for an al fresco leg-over. Either way, Hawley sounds not beatific, but bug-eyed.

It's a curious way to encourage a lady to yield her all amid the arboreal splendor, but then Standing at the Sky's Edge is a peculiar record. From its title onwards, it sets itself up as Hawley's excursion into full-blown psychedelia, but it's not that straightforward. The title might sound wide-eyed and transcendent, but it refers to an area of Sheffield that once combined breathtaking views of the city with a ruined, crime-ridden council estate. The title track opens with a man murdering his family, ends with a teenager stabbing someone in a fight, and doesn't perk up much in between. The music matches. It uses a lot of psychedelic tropes – vocals dwarfed by their own echo, a guitar solo drowning in distortion, clattering, vaguely eastern-influenced percussion – yet the result isn't Technicolor but monochrome, a churning, glowering, tumultuous noise.

Rather than a journey into inner space, the album sounds elemental and bracing: the guitar comes in gusts and squalls. The lyrics frequently conjure up a bleak and forbidding world, summed up by the way one track warps the title of the Merry-Go-Round's 1967 classic Time Will Show the Wiser into the noticeably less optimistic Time Will Give You Winter. Elsewhere, as one lyric puts it, "slivers of light hang in the dark". Seek It offers a bathetic love story that plays out among vandalised buses, set to a chiming riff so beautifully simple it could have come from an old Searchers single. Don't Stare at the Sun is the kind of thing that made Hawley famous: a lovely, lambent ballad about, of all things, taking your kids kite-flying.

The musical shift of Standing at the Sky's Edge is a hazardous strategy, not least because it plays against a lot of Hawley's strengths. Smothering his lovely, careworn voice in electronic effects and swamping his lyrics amid waves of guitar could in theory distance him from the listener, and his ability to create a very human connection with his audience has always been his trump card as a writer. As it turns out, everything you might have loved about Hawley in the past is here, amid the feedback and sprawling solos. As Down in the Woods proves, he's still exploring topics other songwriters don't much bother with: you just don't get many slices of howling garage-psychedelia about a middle-aged man trying to induce his missus into a woodland bunk-up. He still has a way of communicating a kind of homespun wisdom without sounding cloying or mawkish. "Kindness should be a way of life," he sings on Leave Your Body Behind You. Despite the guitars crashing and howling around him, and the presence of a rather West End-sounding chorus of backing vocalists, he sounds exactly like Richard Hawley. The same, but different: a tough trick, pulled off in style.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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