Richard Hawley

Standing at the Sky's Edge

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The cover of Richard Hawley's Standing at the Sky's Edge reveals that something very different is afoot. Given the string-laden, heart-wrenching balladry of Truelove's Gutter, and the orchestrated, tender cibachrome glimpses of a simpler life in and around his native Sheffield on Ladysbridge and Cole's Corner, this is a kick in the head. Hawley has brought his guitar and a basic rock band setup back to the fore here, and his references come from the late '60s. Its production is highly textured, expansive, and aggressive. Opener "She Brings the Sunshine" begins slowly with a tamboura, a bluesy, distant guitar solo, a sitar, and even a violin. But a thudding bassline and the drum kit come crashing in less than a minute later and it becomes a cacophonous throb. It's pure psychedelia with all manner of sonics blurring in the mix (he calls them "rocket sounds"). Hawley offers a squalling guitar break in the middle (one of many fine ones).The title cut commences with an organ, acoustic resonator guitar, a simple bassline, and hypnotic tom-toms. As the track builds, Hawley adds a lilting hook in the refrain of a simple melody. His gorgeous baritone is right up front; his poignant lyrics offer three narratives about biblically named characters -- Joseph, Mary, and Jacob -- who respond to insurmountable difficulties) are made more so by the forceful, dramatic accompaniment -- Dr. John's "I Walk On Gilded Splinters" is referenced in the last third. Hawley uses psychedelia in much the same way Paul Weller did on Heavy Soul: as an extension of his songwriting, pushing his basic rock & roll chops to create songs with a sense of urgency. He gets downright raw on "Down in the Woods," openly copping the riff from the Stooges' "1969" with guitars and bass blazing, surrounded by washed sonics and frenetic drums. But there are other moments here: "Seek It," a love song, carries more familiar Hawley melodic touchstones and an infectious chorus. "The Wood Collier's Grave" is an allegorical folk ballad about individual isolation as a consequence of catharsis. The scorching closer "Leave Your Body Behind You" addresses the necessity of finding a way through crisis and dissolution while in the midst of it. Truth is, SATSE is a political album, albeit one free of clich├ęd sloganeering and/or self-righteousness. Hawley's protagonists are downtrodden, broken, or near despair; they're very human. As a songwriter, he never sacrifices the voices of his subjects for the sake of sound. By employing hard-rocking, often spacey psychedelia to express the anger he feels at watching hard-won gains of history being damaged and destroyed, Hawley delivers an essential listen. His aesthetic is certainly apropos of the current era; possibly even a brilliant summation of it. [The American version of the album contains the bonus track "You Haunt Me."]

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