It often tends to be the case that the people you can always rely on are the ones that you take for granted. Richard Hawley has always delivered great music, but rarely gets the kind of attention he deserves because what he does isn’t new enough or game-changing enough to draw much hype. Sometimes the best way for an artist like him to get noticed is to pull off a surprise, and Standing At The Sky’s Edge is packed with them.
If you come in towards the end, you perhaps wouldn’t guess this, with Seek It and Stare At The Sun both the kind of perfectly-crafted wistful nostalgia-pop that he’s been releasing for the last decade. The latter is one of his best examples of that genre he has built for himself, with his yearning vocals matching the shimmeringly lovely music as well as they’ve ever done on the likes of Coles Corner and Open Up Your Door. But there’s also a hint in there to what the rest of the album holds, with slightly more going on in the background of the production than we’re used to.
Going back to the start of the album and all becomes clear on epic opener She Brought The Sunlight, where Hawley comes across like Mark Lanegan singing over the top of a Brian Jonestown Massacre track. It’s all fire and brimstone and psychedelic Eastern influences, rather like an indie music version of Mad Men moving from the early 60s to the trippy late 60s and doing LSD. Of course, there’s a not-so-rich legacy of the likes of Oasis and The Verve going in for this kind of thing and totally getting it wrong, so it’s a risky strategy.
But Hawley’s never done ‘turgid’ yet and isn’t about to start yet. As he showed on his recent Later… performance, which started with Leave Your Body Behind You, he’s just as good at this new direction as he is at what made us all fall in love with his regular bag of tricks. It doesn’t come off as forced or plodding, it’s electrifying stuff, especially as the Hendrix guitar squal starts up on She Brought The Sunlight, while his voice is well suited to the doomy vocals, even if the Lanegan comparisons are hard to ignore (though there’s no harm in such a comparison, either).
Perhaps the main difference between Hawley’s songs on this album and, say, latter-day Oasis, is that their twirly-whirly raga-rock songs were empty and vacuous pastiches of Beatles and Stones records from the 60s, while he is using this style of music to tell stories in the same way that he used the strings on Coles Corner to tell old romantic tales of Sheffield life. This time, the songs are mostly violent, dark and brooding and the music matches up, not least on the title track. It’s possible Richard Hawley might lose some fans with this about-turn, but anyone walking away will be missing out on one of the best albums of 2012 so far. And we wouldn’t have expected anything less.