Thursday, September 10, 2015

The croon prince - Richard Hawley's Hollow Meadows

After the exquisite psych-pop of Standing At The Sky's Edge three years ago, Sheffield's finest returns to the gentler, glitterball-sparkling slow dance of his earlier recordings with his eighth studio album, Hollow Meadows, released tomorrow.

Once again Richard Hawley muses on the fortysomething preoccupations of ageing, families, relationships and whether all that can be achieved in life has been or ever will. OK, written like that, it does sound like you're in for an utter gloomfest, but Hawley's sublime gift is his ability to turn angst into something poetically charming.

Like most Hawley albums, Hollow Meadows is named after an actual location in Sheffield, in this case, the site of a disused hospital in a small village on the Steel City's Peak District's borders. With time on his hands from an extended recuperation (broken leg, injured back), Hawley discovered that the area was originally known as Auley Meadows, possibly deriving from his own forebears who lived there between the 14th and 17th centuries.

While this isn't, apparently, addressed directly by any of the album's 11 songs, the coming to terms with life events - both good and bad is a recurring theme on Hollow Meadows. "I actually spent months and months not being able to move and it made me think about things a lot," he told the NME in June, explaining what such a confinement could do to the spirit: "It could make you quite negative and I've been concentrating on trying to think about good things."

"Balance your inner being with the outer world and make an equilibrium between the two," Hawley added. "That sounds like real complicated bullshit but trust me, when you’re laying on your back, not being able to move for four-and-a-half months, the weird shit that runs through your head is quite odd."

On Hollow Meadows that manifests itself as at-times brooding introspection that digs deep into the prosaic (What Love Means, about his daughter leaving home), the romantically vivid (Welcome The Sun, which reflects on his recovery), single-minded heroism (Heart Of Oak), the profound (Which Way - the album's breakout single which asks "Which way should I go - is it high or low") and human vulnerability (Tuesday PM - "not everyone's bulletproof on the battlefield).

2009's Truelove's Gutter showcased the Yorkshireman's talent for creating warmth out of cold space, engagement out of sparsity, bold statements from minimalism. Hollow Meadows returns to that, with its dreamlike, shimmering ballads and Hawley's trademark baritone. It is romantic, but never mushy, drawing strongler parallel to the rhinestone-encrusted bittersweetness of Johnny Cash's later work, like The Beast In Me.

And despite temptation to compare much of Hollow Meadows with slower nights at the Grand Ole Opry, there is a folkiness to the album - albeit with oceans of reverb - with folk virtuoso Martin Simpson (Hawley's neighbour) adding banjo and slide guitar to the latin textures of  Long Time Down, which explores the deeper recesses of a relationship gone bad. Jarvis Cocker, Hawley's long-standing friend, also shows up, adding bass parts to Nothing Like A Friend.

Standing At The Sky's Edge was a well-deserved breakthrough for Hawley, as well as a bold one in so boldy abandoning the Orbison-like melodrama of its predecessors. Some, of course, failed to see the point, questioning why Hawley had swapped croon for crunch. But as a songwriter, Sky's Edge moved him into new lyrical territories, territories which, despite Hollow Meadows returning to the romance of Coles Corner, Late Night Final and Lady's Bridge, builds on a storytelling prowess that makes this an album that requires, deserves and insists on being listened to over and over again.

Coming from Yorkshire, Hawley is as blunt as they come, so he would probably hate this: but he really should be considered a national treasure.

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