Saturday, 15 September 2007

Album Review – Richard Hawley – ‘Lady’s Bridge’

Richard Hawley's breakthrough record, Cole’s Corner, should have won the (increasingly inane) Mercury Prize. But the pressure to follow it brought the possibility that his particular charm appeal be diluted. Another cult favourite, Rufus Wainwright, suffered just that fate, releasing the worst material of his career just as he started to garner mainstream attention. While far superior to the latest Rufus record, Lady’s Bridge suffers some of the same problems. Musically, it retreads much of the ground covered by Cole’s Corner: the sound is bigger, cleaner and poppier, but basically unchanged. A few tracks add to the palette: ‘I’m Looking For Someone To Find Me’ mixes Dusty Springfield strings with uptempo British Beat / skiffle rhythms and Lee Hazelwood’s knowingness. It’s a polished set, but feels too much like two or three standouts, padded to album length.

Hawley’s first two albums, Lowedges and Late Night Final, succeeded because they created a sense of intimacy and self-containment: his private, personal passion for dated, faded music flew in the face of fashion, but for those in the know, that made his underdog charm all the more affecting. Cole’s Corner was a bigger deal, but it maintained that intimacy through a deliberate sense of time and place, while the strength of its songs made the crossover to the mainstream seem justified and heartening.

Hawley uses a location as an organising theme again. But where Cole’s Corner was a static location where romances were played out, Lady’s Bridge looks at a river – impersonal, always moving, leading him towards broader treatments of continuity and change. Occasionally this pays off: lead single ‘Tonight the Streets Are Ours’ addresses marginalised youth as a timeless group, with a gravitas and historical perspective that bands like the Arctic Monkeys could never approximate; Hawley does this without seeming preachy or smart-arsed, but with authority and passion, making it an absolutely brilliant pop song. Opener ‘Valentine’ could be an Orbison original, with sufficient weight and drama to invoke a timeless sense of romanticism. On ‘Roll River Roll’ the historical perspective is further widened as Hawley addresses the 1864 Sheffield flood – a Victorian Katrina in which a poorly constructed dam burst, claiming the lives of hundreds of local workers.

But as a whole, the dark, sombre and reflective mood that suffuses Hawley’s work suffers from a lack of emotional context: Lady’s Bridge is far less personal than his previous work. Pulp, for whom Hawley used to work, made stunning use of the river concept in ‘Wickerman’, the centrepiece of their final album: the song combines personal reminiscences and romantic regrets with a real sense of the changing face of Sheffield, as evidenced in the factories that line the Wicker, and in the urban myths that haunt it. Nothing on Lady’s Bridge comes close. You don’t expect it to: Hawley was never as open as Jarvis Cocker, hiding instead behind the glasses, the quiff, and the 50s reference points. But in reaching beyond his private world of romantic failures and late night café’s, Hawley has diluted the force of his music.

More fun:

Artist homepage

A fun bunch of rare Hawley, including great Jesus and Mary Chain and Everly Brothers covers, right here.

And even more Hawley on the Hype Machine

Pulp – ‘Wickerman’ (from We Love Life)

Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley – ‘Disneytime’ (live BBC session)

Previously on GMS

Buy Lady’s Bridge

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