Who is Richard Hawley?

richard-hawley

Here’s the funny thing about Richard Hawley: For an artist whose name is so rarely invoked outside the company of other, more famous performers– be it Pulp (Jarvis Cocker‘s old band, for whom Hawley played guitar), Arctic Monkeys (who famously dedicated their Mercury Award to Hawley, a fellow nominee who they admitted was snubbed), or Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison (two singers whose dignity and authority Hawley has inherited)– he has a rather astonishing ability to sound like no one but himself. In 2009, nobody writes songs or makes records like Hawley’s, let alone possesses his incredible set of pipes. He’s one of a kind, and as such he’s indispensable.

So why isn’t he better-known? To be fair, his music is far from commercial– it’s not sexy enough, though it’s ravishingly romantic. Hawley is a traditionalist, less interested in whatever the latest fad on indie rock blogs then classic pop expressions that range from rockabilly to velvety, string-drenched balladry. And while his music is impossibly smart, it’s not what you’d call clever: Hawley has zero interest in irony or tricks, as he’s too consumed with the interior landscape of the heart, a geography he’s mapped out on at least two essential albums of the 00s– with a third on the way.

The album for which he almost won the Mercury Prize was 2005’s Cole’s Corner, a lush and heartfelt work named after a real place in Hawley’s native Sheffield; though the actual, historic landmark has been demolished, it lives on in Hawley’s music– immortal– as a metaphorical meeting place of past and future, where ghosts of past friends and lovers mingle and memories are almost tangible. But it’s not a work of sentiment– it’s a profound and affecting meditation on love and the ravages of time. Or as my friend Thom Jurek puts it:

Cole’s Corner is an actual place, a corner in Sheffield, Hawley’s hometown, where people have met and encountered one another by chance, to hang out, rendezvous, and commiserate since 1905. This song cycle reflects the hope experienced in some of those chance encounters as it flowers and then withers and dies. Sounds like a downer, but Hawley’s melancholy is so rich and empathetic, so devoid of self pity and self assessment, it is anything but…

And so it goes. Reveries, nostalgia, longed-for wishes, regret, sadness, and the bittersweet mark of the beloved left on the heart of the left and lost. Early rock & roll and rockabilly, country, traces of the vintage-’40s pop, jazz, and even some blues, fall together in a seamless, nearly rapturous whole. Hawley’s guitar sound, ringing like a voice from another present era, steps beyond dimension to underscore the emotion and story in his voice. There isn’t a moment on Cole’s Corner that doesn’t stand up, doesn’t fall into the next, giving them all uncommon, even singular depth and dimension. And the singer’s voice conjures shadows, glimmers of soft light, street lamps, tears, and the sound of lonely steps on a rainy midnight street. Cole’s Corner is glorious, magical, and utterly lovely in its vision, articulation, and execution.

Hawley followed it up– impossibly enough– with an album just as rich and moving: 2007’s Lady’s Bridge, a record as intimate and focused as Cole’s Corner but even more diverse and detailed. Again, Thom Jurek summarizes its virtues with aplomb:

Lady’s Bridge — named for another locale in Sheffield — is as moving, tender, and literate as its predecessor, without the least bit of formula or pretension applied. The location is Sheffield’s oldest bridge, a place that divided the working-class part of the city from its upper-crust denizens. Hawley grew up on the poor side of it. According to what he has said in interviews, Lady’s Bridge is also a metaphor for the crossing of a bridge in his own life — and that doesn’t necessarily mean his career…

Ultimately, Lady’s Bridge is a sad kind of record that doesn’t leave one depressed. In the great rock & roll tradition, it leaves the listener feeling alive, full of a dreamy kind of awe at what has just transpired and the plain-fact realization is that this is an absolutely brilliant record by a middle-aged man who is just beginning to hit his stride, though everything he’s done is relegated to the realm of an accessible kind of art.

In just a couple of weeks, Hawley adds a third 21st-century masterwork to his oeuvre– Truelove’s Gutter. This time, Hawley names his album for a purely metaphorical place, and he adds another name to the list of namedrops– Frank Sinatra, whose late-night saloon classic In the Wee Small Hours this album somewhat invokes, though in form and spirit it’s something entirely its own. I’ll be saying more about it soon, but suffice to say that it’s the most expansive and haunting album of Hawley’s career, and altogether different from the two that came before it.

For now, meet Richard Hawley. Highlights from both Cole’s Corner and Lady’s Bridge can be heard on MySpace. There’s nothing there from the new album, though– probably because it’s such a seamless suite, picking a single out of it would be a grave disservice.

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