Richard Hawley has always shown a penchant for writing deeply evocative and emotional songs about people and situations in his hometown of Sheffield. His early recordings, especially Lowedges, reflected his obsession with lushly orchestrated pop songs and a production style that extended a song far beyond its margins and into the listener's world with a near visual sensibility. This was even more true on the brilliant, near cinematic recordings Cole's Corner (2005) and Lady's Bridge (2007), where he took production skills and hometown images to a level that almost -- but not quite -- overtook the glorious melodies in his songs. Hawley created emotional atmospheres as well as sonic ones; nostalgia was a poetic device that evoked the ghosts of history, but were clearly present for the listener. On Truelove's Gutter (another Sheffield-inspired title), Hawley has dug the well much deeper and brought forth a spring of new ideas in his singing, writing, and production, but paradoxically, has done so with less. The album is more sparse than anything he's released. Its eight songs have a decidedly late-night feel. The grand sweeping orchestral strings of his last two albums have been replaced by a chamber section and odd instrumentation -- like megabass waterphones and crystal baschets -- that add real intimacy to the proceedings. These songs reflect his own experiences, or the trials and tribulations of friends. His gorgeous melodies shine through brighter in songs that are naked and unflinching, yet musically more sophisticated, adding depth of field.
"Open Up Your Door" would be just a pop song were it not for lyrical concerns underscored by the only chamber arrangement: it's a plea for reconciliation by a husband who confesses and owns his shortcomings, while professing an all-consuming love for his spouse as strings swell and punctuate the bridge. The melody is infectious, and Hawley's soaring baritone evokes the power of Roy Orbison's tenor. It is followed by the country-ish "Ashes on the Fire," whose melody is as revealing as its lyric; it's a devastating tale of someone who wrote -- and delivered -- a letter confessing an passionate love, only to discover its burnt remains in the dustbin. Hawley conveys his protagonist's complex emotions without judgment. His beautiful guitars support the storyteller line by line. "Remorse Code," at nearly ten minutes, melds acoustic and electric guitars with a drum kit played with Dean Beresford's bare hands. It's an observation tale of a friend who likens his life to a shipwreck. The lyric and melody are elementary; there isn't an extra note. Hawley's extended guitar solo underscores its powerful subject matter as a device and illustrates what a terrific storyteller he is. "For Your Lover Give Some Time," perhaps the album's most beautiful -- and wryly humorous -- track, confessionally reflects on his relationship with his wife; Hawley promises to deal with his failings but also points out hers. It's a complex meditation of committment detailing the worthy effort involved in maintaining its bond. "Don't You Cry," at nearly 11 minutes, utilizes Tibetan bowls, glass harmonicas, and a fisherman's lyre in an empathic reflection on getting stuck in the expectation of a moment that never arrives. Truelove's Gutter is a singular moment in Hawley's catalog that displays the maturity of all his gifts. It is quietly passionate yet graceful and elegant. He's realized an ambition here that is artful and singular.