[30 September 2009]
In case it wasn’t clear that Richard Hawley’s sixth studio album has at its deep dark heart the perennial themes of space, time, and loss, the quietly insistent ticking of a clock at the outset of closing track “Don’t You Cry” should make the point. A sound picked up accidentally during the recording of the song, Hawley decided to leave this ominous reminder of passing time on the final mix. And while he may sing “The clocks have stopped their ticking / Time grips you in its vice”, this is only another reminder that time ends too, disappearing like true love down the gutter that gives this album its name (it turns out that Truelove was actually a seventeenth century Sheffield innkeeper whose access to a river where waste could be disposed of made him a useful figure to the local citizenry: Hawley liked the poetry of the two terms and saw their relevance to the themes of his new songs).
The sense of space is evident from the outset of Truelove’s Gutter, with album opener “As the Dawn Breaks” unfolding its “morning search for meaning” at the most leisurely of paces. A single extended note is gradually joined by others, then by the sound of birdsong and slow acoustic guitar. “I know we never had much time”, Hawley sings and it seems clear he means to make up for this lack now. It is a beautiful and deceptively simple opening to a beautiful and deceptively simple album, introducing Hawley’s beguiling baritone and his truly resonant soundworld.
The most obvious departure from previous work is the length of the tracks. Hawley has spoken in interview of his annoyance at the soundbite culture we live in and of his desire to allow his audience the space to appreciate mature, well thought-out work. The point is underlined by two tracks that clock in at ten minutes and one at seven; no song is under four minutes. While Hawley’s voice and instrumental approach has often suggested a slowness of pace, the new songs are truly expansive and there is a real feeling that they have been grown to their “natural” size. This organic nature is, of course, a fantasy (these are studiously worked-on pieces) but it’s an effective one. While cropping can sometimes enhance and concentrate the aesthetic of certain artists’ work, leaving the “record” button on was clearly the right decision for tracks such as “Don’t You Cry” and the glorious “Remorse Code”.
The expansiveness is less explicit in the lyrics, which on the whole are stripped down and given space to send their messages simply and effectively. “Ashes on the Fire”, the tale of the fate which awaits the love letter sent by the protagonist to his “true heart’s desire”, has the crystal simplicity of the best country music, a fact accentuated by the loping shuffle of the track and the mandolin-like baritone ukulele. Hawley’s delivery of the quatrains recalls Brett Sparks of the Handsome Family and there is a similar sense of pathos in both singers. The similarity extends to the ability of both Hawley and the Handsome Family to create big-sounding, evental art from small moments.
Truelove’s Gutter is an album of moments rather than big events, some of these moments underlined by swelling strings (the first of these appears around three quarters of the way into “Open Up Your Door”; another spectacular occurrence comes four minutes into “Soldier On”). It is also an appreciation of time and space, hymned most beautifully in the single “For Your Lover Give Some Time”. That song also harks back to a time when such ballads were more common and finds Hawley at his most Scott Walker-like. From the lilt of the melody to couplets such as “Here’s a toast to you Helen / To all the cinemas we ran in from the rain”, the sense of bittersweet melancholy is captivating. By choosing the track as a single, Hawley is both picking one of his most endearing tunes for potential radio play and slyly promoting his feelings towards three-minute pop (the track runs for more than five minutes).
The same sense of space that dignified Walker’s most magical moments in the late 1960s is here emphasized via recourse to unusual instruments such as the crystal baschet and megabass waterphone, both of which bring extra layers of resonance and warmth to the music. The warmth is similar to that gained by the use of light in old pictures, grown warmer with accumulated patina. Hawley, operating from his usual workplace in Sheffield’s Studios, has found his own way to illuminate his often dark narratives with strokes of applied brightness.
This is a highly recommended album by an artist who seems to keep getting better. From what initially seemed like a limited palette, Richard Hawley has produced a masterpiece of tonal space that demands full concentration. To this singer give some time.