Warning: what you are about to experience contains not a hint of irony or pessism, skepticism or half-truths, denial or doubt. There are no ulterior motives, no hidden subplots, no conflicting interests, and no subliminal messages. If you can suspend suspicion and cynicism, dear friend -- imagine, commit, and trust -- you'll encounter the impossible place of simple being, pure, untouched, and wanting of your spirit.
There is nothing more rare -- or more magical -- than wholehearted belief, and this extraordinary gift has been offered up tenfold by Richard Hawley on his breathtaking debut, Late Night Final. Here, Hawley, who has played guitar for Beth Orton, Robbie Williams, and Pulp, steps into the spotlight on his own, and delivers a charming epic, replete with wonder and warmth. The songs -- earnest stories, careful lullabies, pensive forget-me-nots -- listen like an aural slide show, and the visions he renders are sweet, colorful, and unforgettable.
Even on its first listen, the album conjures floods of memories. "Something Is . . .", a brilliant, swelling track packed with guitars and pacing basslines, open the album as an honest ode to necessary departures. "I'm going away now, sweetness / Don't be sad / Though tonight was the best night that we've had," Hawley sings, his voice like a salve on a bitter wound. As the song swims toward the chorus, the volume and radiance builds. "Yeah, I'm leaving on the next train that's blowing 'round the bend," he sings, his notes grazing the top of his range. It is a song that could be backgrounding any exit, both relieved and resigned.
Throughout, the album continues its trek through stories of love, staying and leaving. Hawley's milky tenor is full of wisdom and wit, drenched in sumptuous affect that translates even the simplest lyrics into gospel; it's a gentlemanly Tom Waits if he weren't so gruff and bourbon-burned, Costeau's Liam McKahey on an Elvis Costello trip, or Edwyn Collins minus the schmaltz.
Stylistically, the album experiments slightly with tempo and timbre but mostly stays straight the course of the good old '50s inspired troubadour. "Baby, You're My Light" tinkles sweetly with glockenspiel as Hawaiian lap steel guitar bows and sways; "Love of My Life", the album's third track and first truly slow song, goes down easy, like a sugary pill; the livelier follow-up, "The Nights Are Cold", toys slightly with Latin-inspired guitar line while drums shuffle zestfully. And Hawley's guitar playing is always exact and conspicuous, just enough to lift the lilt of his soothing vocals.
Though there isn't a weak track on the entire album, for the sentimental, the strongest is "Can You Hear the Rain, Love?", a song nothing short of gorgeous and heartbreaking. Hawley sings in a rich whisper, heavy with vibrato, as the music behind him is magnificently unhurried: "Here comes another tear / For the silence in me / And as its darkness clears / I wake you gently singing / Can you hear the rain, love?" His lyrics, like his song titles, are plainly and observantly prosaic, exploring the beauty and curiosity of the most seemingly ordinary experiences.
The album executes a near perfect dismount with "The Light at the End of the Tunnel (Was a Train Coming the Other Way", which rolls like film credits, the only human voice a glowing hum. At times, whistling is audible above the brooding melody; at others, the effortless cadence of guitar and bass wander over other noises, pulling them in like an embrace. As the song closes, the sound of a train takes over, momentarily powerful before fading away, bit by bit.
As an album, though, Late Night Final album will pass quickly, because it's like the best kind of nostalgia: the moments you live contemporaneously, and know in your heart will survive as significant memoirs. Listen to this album with your eyes closed, and allow it to stitch itself into the recollections you carry with you, always. This is the kind of album you will want to take refuge in.