Richard Hawley: “Truelove’s Gutter” (Track-by-track version)
Note: A shorter review of this album can be found here. This much lengthier evaluation is a song-by-song exploration of the work’s central themes, and may be more useful for those who have heard the music already; if you’re new to the world of Richard Hawley, however, the shorter version might be a better starting point.
Richard Hawley’s music has always proved fertile haunting grounds for all manner of ghosts and spirits. His breakthrough album, Cole’s Corner, took its name from an actual street corner in Hawley’s native Sheffield; Cole’s Corner has long been a thing of the past, demolished to make room for new urban development, but Hawley ressurected it with disarming clarity, using it as a focal point for a meditation on broken love and friends long gone. As he made the follow-up to that album, Lady’s Bridge, Hawley lost his father, himself a respected, working musician with a long career in rockabilly; Hawley ended up cutting a jaunty little skiffle of his own for the album, called “Serious,” which sounded as though the elder Hawley’s spirit was still rattling around the studio, showing his son the way.
Now two albums after his Mercury Prize-nominated breakthrough, Hawley has made his most haunted– and haunting– album to date. Truelove’s Gutter is something altogether different from the two albums that came before it, and yet it sounds not like a departure, but a progression. Hawley’s trademark sound is something rooted in classic rock and roll balladry, velvety crooning, and brief flourishes of rockabilly and jazz. Some of his songs sound for all the world like forgotten entries in the Great American Songbook, though of course they were truly written in this young decade. Here, Hawley keeps his music rooted in those same influences, but strips it to the bone, into something skeletal and spooky, and he allows it to stretch out: Truelove’s Gutter is luxuriously slow and often very quiet– no modern pop singer uses silence as effectively as Hawley– but it unfolds naturally, with a strong sense of narrative but also a composer’s sense of dynamic ebb and flow.
More than the vast majority of albums in the world, this one is very much of a piece: There are no singles, and its story is revealed in such a way that listening to it only partially, or out of sequence, would be absurd. Its spiritual cousin is Sinatra’s classic late-night saloon album In the Wee Small Hours, for like that album– as well as the previous entries in Hawley’s canon– it’s an album of exquisite, enveloping sadness, though it is never depressing or difficult to hear. It is Hawley’s darkest record yet, and one could say, truthfully, that it is his dark night of the soul, or that it tells the tale of new love that slowly fades and dies, and while both of these statements are technically accurate, they do not capture the spirit of what Hawley is doing. This is not emo. There is zero self-pity, no wallowing, no wrist-cutting histrionics, no high-school journaling. Hawley is a romantic in every sense, and these songs are written from a place of dignity, empathy, and above all, wonder– they are, in short, profound testaments to human experience, excised of all banality or cliche.
The first song is called “As the Dawn Breaks,” and it lives up to its name: Hawley ushers in the album’s beginning slowly and carefully, as a bed of hazy atmospherics gradually gives way to a gently-strummed morning hymn. Hawley greets a new day, and a new love, with characteristicly simple poetry, and the song is a sweetly-crooned ode to love as a thing of promise and redemption. This song is paired with “Open Up Your Door,” a pleading but resolute appeal to the beloved with a melody that is as lovely and full of hope as Hawley’s “Valentine” melody was utterly devestating.
Some of Hawley’s familiar influences are at work here, but in different forms: “Ashes on the Fire” is a country song, but it’s stripped down to its bare essence, all spare and spooky. Actually, it sounds like a ghost story, though its tale is of a love whose fire has been reduced to just a few embers. Hawley’s poetry cuts to the bone, as well, speaking to brokenness but with no whining or melodrama: “My words like an arrow/ Aimed so much higher/ My bow broke asunder/ Ashes on the fire.” That said, what follows is a song that breaks away from Hawley’s past work– without losing sight of his roots– into something completely other. “Remorse Code” is one of the album’s two spacious epics, unfolding into nearly ten minutes in length, and it is a hypnotic composition of acoustic guitar and hand percussion, Hawley’s lyric devastating and at the fore. One critic has called the song “ambient,” but no, there’s nothing sleepy or indulgent here: Hawely enlivens the set with some of his typically sterling, rousing guitar solos.
Trulove’s Gutter, by the way, is the first Richard Hawley album since before Cole’s Corner that isn’t named after a real, geographic place; its setting, of course, is a purely literarey one but the songs are no less rooted in the real world. Hawley still maps the strange geography of the heart with painful precision, and though he is a romantic through and through, there is nothing romanticized about his worldview. “Don’t Get Hung Up in Your Soul” is another sweet hymn to the beloved, though this time it bears the full weight of brokenness and sorrow, not like the weightless songs that opened the record: “You’re the thorn and you’re the crown,” he tells his lover, signifying both love’s pain and its ultimate joy.
This is an album on which Hawley plays to his strengths, but takes them into daring new places and startling new contexts– thus, rendering them with new meaning. He has long been a master of artful melodrama– anyone who has heard his utterly broken ballad “Valentine” or his exhilarating ode to romance, “Tonight the Streets Are Ours,” can attest to this– but on Truelove’s Gutter, he employs euphoria sparingly: “Soldier On” begins as a slow and steady crawl, but gradually builds and errupts into a crescendo of explosive violence, the lyric invoking both fractured love and apocalyptic cataclysm. But this is not the wide-eyed Panavision of those earlier songs from Lady’s Bridge: It’s simply the natural peak of a winding, uphill journey.
He couldn’t possibly top the impossible drama and tension of that song, so he doesn’t try: The song is followed with a gentle parlor-room folk song called “For Your Lover Give Some Time,” performed with just acoustic guitar and a mournful violin in the background. The spare setting keeps the emphasis on Hawley’s lyric, and it is the more wrenching on the whole set: “I will give up these cigarettes/ Stay at home and watch you mend the tears on your dress… and be your lover for all time/ Maybe I will drink a little less/ Come home early and not forget about the deaths/ And give you flowers from the graveyard now and then.” The song’s title phrase comes not like a platitude, but a hard-won lesson, spoken not triumphantly but in tears.
The album’s conclusion is, at nearly eleven minutes, its true epic centerpiece, and a conclusion that is both devastating in its sadness and awe-inspiring in its beauty. “Don’t You Cry” is both a sweet lulluby– sung with the richest compassion and empathy– and a sad survey of the valley of shadows. Hawley’s lyric invokes death and destruction– “unholy broken shadows,” stopped clocks and frozen lakes– but, in the wake of all that has happened on this record so far, his words of encouragement and hope are every bit as strong and as potent as the song’s sorrow.
And that is as great a triumph as this, or any other album, could attain: That it is an album so deeply sad and sorrowful, yet it leaves the listener not depressed, but enlivened by the wonder of it all, both in terms of Hawley’s remarkable music as well as the depth and richness of human experience that it invokes. Truelove’s Gutter is a journey of great emotion, and its demands on the listener are many, yet its rewards are more numerous still. Many albums leave the listener impressed, but few leave us in awe, which this album most surely does. Whether it’s Hawley’s finest moment yet is irrelevant, as his music is all so profound and exquisite, but surely this is the distillation of his music’s purest essence, the sound of a masterful artist coming into his own by breaking away into something utterly his own– something that can never, ever be repeated.