The almost inaudible hum at the very start of this superb, majestic album grows and spreads like an inkdrop in an aquarium. An esraj continues the dhun, lulling us into a short heavy-lidded complacency, until...
...until the workmanlike voice and guitar of Richard Hawley shoulders the door open and we’re in a star-sodden meadow looking out, out, out.
Hawley, singer-songwriter laureate of Sheffield (almost all his songs and album titles have Sheffield references), is stainless steel-cosmic in ‘She brings the sunlight’, the opening track in his seventh and finest album, Standing at the Sky’s Edge — Sky Edge being an area in his hometown, Sheffield, noted for its high crime rate. The song, with its full-blown George Harrison-Hindustani classical music-drenched wall of sound is quite staggering, especially with its incredibly simple chorus, “She brings the su-u-u-u-n light/ She makes the wo-o-o-orld right”. You can hear Northern Soul radiating from it.
The title track that follows, with its leaden beat and smothering melody, chronicling desperate people turning into heinous criminals, transforms mean streets and low life into a smouldering, percussion-driven Old Testament sequence. In ‘Time will bring you winter’, Hawley uses guitar distorts and echo vocals to conjure up an ‘easy listening’ song of peaceful pessimism. “You may fall into the sea,/ And you may think while you are sinking,/ You may feel as tall as trees/ But someday time will bring you winter,” he sings. Take that Bart Bacharach!
One would think that a song called ‘Down in the woods’ would be an open celebration of nature and all things pastoral. But if the heavy riffing and engine drumming doesn’t make you think otherwise, then course correction will come when you follow Hawley praying: “There must be a place for us/ For you and I to be as one/ Around your shoulders, around your hair/ My eyes were blinded by solar flares/ Won’t you follow me down,/ Down into the woods./ Won’t you follow me down/ Come back feeling good". The song, you realise, is really about finding that beautiful shagging spot behind the local Ikea.
‘Seek it’ is a sugar-coated love song in which Hawley sings about a dream he had in which “we got naked” but he can’t remember what happened next. He continues his sing-song about how he had his fortune read and was told that he would “meet somebody with green eyes/ yours are blue”. It’s like listening to the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland singing a love song to Alice in between his hookah puffs.
Hawley is super-mellow in ‘Don’t stare at the sun’. The soft snares and the slipper-shuffle of the voice make for an incantation. The Ennio Morricone bit towards the end makes me wonder whether this warning about ocular damage by solar radiation is intended for Clint Eastwood on his horse.
There’s a whiff of a Russian folk tune buried inside ‘The wood collier’s grave’, a song that sounds like a Bertolt Brecht-The Cure collaboration. Hawley sounds a bit dorky here, as if singing in a trade union cultural festival. But dorkiness is banished with the song that follows: the stuttering exhaltation of ‘Leave your body behind you’. “You leave your body behind you,/ When you leave this place,/ You leave your body behind you,/ And you make a space,” Hawley sings with pub-closing desperation.
Hawkley has forsaken his earlier Roy Orbisonics in this album and gone into something larger, more intimate and colder in the sense of open space. This is underlined in the final number, ‘Before’, where he sings with that hint of the Orbison-quiver, “But it won’t be me/ That sets you free/ No, it won’t be me/ who closes the door on before.”
Standing At The Sky’s Edge is an album whose tendrils wrap around the listener with each listen. This remarkable collection of urban hymns is the finest record that’s out in 2012 yet.