A son of Sheffield steel, the very British Richard Hawley, a sometimes guitar-player for the Longpigs, Pastels and Pulp, has mined those late-’60s/early-’70s production paragons of sense and sensibility (think of records by Petula Clark, Serge Gainsbourg, Jimmy Webb, Marty Robbins, Dean Martin) to build sumptuous, slightly overblown albums of elaborate pop. Unafraid to tastefully dress any sonic setting with plangent and eccentric coloration (pedal steel, mellow violins, dulcimer, basso profundo Bachian organ), Hawley is no unthinking, unfeeling hipster archivist. These are not shadowy imitations or bloodless trips of narcissism. If at times the lyrics monochromatically run the gamut of emotions from A to B, the music is always well crafted, a link to sunnier climes where women walk on the edge of oceans with sand and glare rising up in their beautiful, lined faces.
The strongest antecedents for these albums are the runic (an academic word for unhinged) creations of Scott Walker and the easy baritone amblings of cowboy poet Lee Hazlewood. (Hawley’s work with Pulp was produced by Walker; Pulp appeared on a Hazlewood tribute LP; and Hawley himself was a vital force on Nancy Sinatra’s stirring comeback LP.) These artists share a disdain for the obvious: shifts in time signatures abound, minor chords become majors without warning and the neo-folky acoustic numbers are quietly but lethally strafed with searing electric guitar. There are, as well, very few depths of sadness unfamiliar to these songsters, making their fabulous careers (and Hawley’s work) glacial existential dramas of the highest order.
The brief Richard Hawley mini-album is a work in progress. It’s sweet and sentimental, with sophisticated and dreamy touches. Although Hawley plays a half-dozen instruments here, a lot of the credit is due Colin Elliot, a great and uncommon drummer. Self-produced and very short, the album lacks a singular vision, but each of the seven strong numbers delivers piercing instances of self-awareness.
Late Night Final is much surer. Co-producing with Elliot, the artist mutes his liabilities (monotony, reverence for things past) here and adds helpfully articulated dynamics. The songs never become upbeat, but at least there are actual pockets of hope. Hawley consolidates his considerable talents (he plays most of the instruments) with a searching that is emotionally elemental and intellectually stimulating. The knockout “Love of My Life” veers toward disembodied and maudlin theatrics but checks such excess by his lovely voice, which dips into valleys of unrequited love and soars towards relational hope. The guitar is spacey and westerny: there is no melodrama too large for Hawley’s manly whisper.
Lowedges is his most variegated work: from the opening cascade of orchestral notes counterbalanced by production that pushes vocals and bass drums to the fore of the quietest of ballads, Hawley emerges as a fine manipulator of studio-driven baroque pop. He creates conditions that allow him to take vocal chances. The songs use the length and space needed to make accurate and honest declarations of musical depth and human sadness. There is not a weak song here. Although the lyrics describe a besieged and saturnine presence, the songwriter plows ahead, crafting companionable problem-solvers to the surrounding sadness. The heartening effect is uplifting and meditational. Hawley has become more than a singing/songwriting crooner: he has become a harbor in stormy nights.
His finest work is Coles Corner, an even more intimate series of strongly etched vignettes that coolly look at youth, flowerless girls and unsteady nights. The propensities for treacle and brimstone are cut by the realism of his portraits and the certitude in his voice. A Nick Drake-like wonder here, it is sonorous, even-keeled and assured. This is the voice, these are the songs and here is the man to “hold back the night.” Music this experienced and intimate, this nursing and risky, comes along every few years. But it takes a life fully lived to express it. Such is the relentless sweetness of sorrow.