The guy who should have won the 2006 Mercury Prize makes an even stronger bid for 2008.
Ever since venturing out on his own as a solo artist after years of work as a supporting musician, Richard Hawley has, over the course of five full-length albums, brought simple, sincere songwriting back to an overly cynical and trite pop music world, the singer-songwriter looking as out of place among the Arctic Monkeys, Art Bruts, and Girls Alouds of the world as a humble suitcase style 45 RPM record player in a room full of iPod nanos. After an extended period of slowly building a core group of admirers, from indie rock fans to admirers of vintage 1960s UK pop music, to bored critics looking for anything better than the latest bunch of Williamsburg freak-folkers, Hawley's warm, unassuming music found its way to a considerably larger audience in his home country, thanks in large part to the aggressive release of six singles by label Mute Records, and especially his nomination for the 2006 Mercury Prize.
Unlike the odd faux-crooner that comes along every so often, waxing nostalgic but still exuding smarm over slick, saccharine arrangements (a Canadian named Buble comes to mind) that don't so much pay homage to an old sound as clobber the living crap out of it, Hawley, a seasoned veteran with both a cunning ear for hooks and as comfy a voice as you'll ever hear, brilliantly offsets luxurious production with some likeable working class simplicity. He can get as misty-eyed as the worst of us, but he's also been everywhere and seen it all, and as a result, we hang on his every word.
After carefully evolving as both a songwriter and a musician with his terrific albums Late Night Final and Lowedges, both of which showcasing his versatility as a guitar player, Hawley found his defining sound on 2005's Coles Corner, impeccably interweaving the melodrama of Roy Orbison with the orchestral grandiosity of Scott Walker, and the much anticipated follow-up, Lady's Bridge, sticks faithfully to the same formula. Only now, as hard as it may seem to comprehend after such a gorgeous record two years ago, the new album outdoes its predecessor, exhibiting improvements in nuance, musical variety, and even mood, as the self-described "speccy twat from Sheffield" even manages to cheer up a little bit, even if the lightheartedness is fleeting.
Opening with that unmistakably Spector-esque, heartbeat-like rhythmic thrum, "Valentine" is a perfect example of Hawley's mastery of the form, the song gently building to a graceful crescendo of an orchestra and full band, underscoring his double-tracked lead vocals which hearken back to the Righteous Brothers, the uplifting, cinematic melody contrasting with his typically maudlin sentiment ("Just take me back in time, now you're not here anymore"). First single "Tonight the Streets Are Ours" is a radical departure, as Hawley's narrator brims with youthful optimism, exuding the same kind of "let's get out of this town" sentiment that a certain New Jersey band perfected 30 years ago (complete with glockenspiel), only tinged with a mid-'60s sweetness reminiscent of classic Burt Bacharach. The sprightly skiffle number "Serious" continues the upbeat mood, as Hawley whimsically sings simple rhyming couplets over a buoyant acoustic shuffle, while the whimsical yet gently self-effacing "I'm Looking For Someone to Find Me" has the sardonic Hawley winking at us all the while.
Not surprisingly, it's the more haunting numbers that really make this record, as rivers, oceans, and darkness dominate Hawley's lyrical imagery. Plaintive waltz "Roll River Roll" samples the oeuvres of both Scott Walker and Johnny Cash, graceful blues piano fills offsetting his decidedly throaty, Cash-like (or is it Kurt Wagner?) rasp, "Roll river, rrolll..." The Cash influence is especially strong on "Dark Road", which clip-clops along lazily, one of the few songs where Hawley's guitar prowess is accentuated the most, while the wistful title track is disarming in its simplicity, its quiet melody the kind of pop hook that so effortlessly wins us over, Hawley doing what he does best, working within the confines of a classic, oft-repeated songwriting style, but coming across as completely genuine. "Our Darkness" and "Lady Solitude" continue along in the exact same vein, Hawley in full crooner mode, slowly building up to the album's plaintive denouement, "The Sun Refused to Shine" proving the previous moments of happiness were only fleeting, as he pulls the shades on his morose little world and shuffles off, hands in pockets, into the post-closing time, Sheffield night.