The act of critics salivating over a seasoned artist’s new release by vowing it is unlike anything they have done before has become a boy who cried wolf scenario by now. In the realm of pop music in particular, this cliché looms large. Richard Hawley, he whose name is synonymous with dulcet, may not be the first person you would expect to shake his signature sound up. From the very start of his seventh solo album, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, it’s apparent that Hawley’s sound has been defatted and pulverized, yet emotion and beauty remain intact.
Much has been made of this (to use another well-worn cliché) game-changer of an album in Hawley’s native England, where critics have called the release “dark” and even “psychedelic”. For someone whose musical reference points seemed to stop at “Sunday Morning”-era Velvet Underground on past albums, the sounds on Standing at the Sky’s Edge do have the potential to jar on first listen. Yet, Hawley’s signatures are far from being absent. As for a heavier sound, we were given an eruptive preview of it during “Soldier On” from Hawley’s previous release, 2009’s Truelove’s Gutter. It may not have led one to believe that the Mansunesque stylings of something like Standing at‘s “Time Will Bring You Winter” would be an obvious progression, but what good are artists if they don’t keep surprising us?
Standing at the Sky’s Edge‘s two most initially striking songs are arranged back to back, and the resulting effect is a fist to the eardrum followed by a tender kiss on the lobe from your sweetheart. “Down in the Woods” is the album’s hardest and fastest track; at one point Hawley even abandons his gently used croon for a howled “I love you” and a near shout on the outro. It is not uncommon for artists to take on rowdier personae as their careers progress, but in this instance all pretense seems to have been ditched for cold, brutal passion. “Seek It”, the next track, is so earnest that in lesser hands the threat of secondhand embarrassment would be so strong that the listener may not make it to the one minute mark. Hawley’s genuineness, however, makes the opening lyrics, “I had a dream and you were in it / We got naked, can’t remember what happened next / It was weird” sound like the pinnacle of romantic verse. Although worlds apart sonically, both “Seek It” and “Down in the Woods” share a truthfulness that only the best artists can achieve.
When not concerning itself with such candid matters, Standing at the Sky’s Edge showcases Hawley’s growing adeptness at the folk-inspired narrative. While hardly absent from past releases, songs on Standing at… are more character-driven and complete. The album’s title track concerns three luckless individuals and is delivered by Hawley in his customary weathered delivery, a perfect storyteller’s voice. “The Wood Collier’s Grave” concerns Hawley’s default theme of lost love, but his distance here manages to allow some fresh insight to seep in.
Like Hawley’s last four releases, the title Standing at the Sky’s Edge refers to a specific location in Hawley’s hometown of Sheffield. No matter the locale, Hawley’s latest is every bit as universal and timeless as past efforts. That widespread reach, paired with Hawley’s stripped sound, comes at something of a cost: one Hawley signature not initially apparent on Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a heart-demolishing ballad, something like Coles Corner‘s “The Ocean” or Lowedges‘s “The Only Road”. What Standing at the Sky’s Edge loses in heartbreak it easily makes up for in depth, and Hawley has just given us something that is truly worth sinking into.