out now: Richard Hawley – Standing At The Sky’s Edge [Mute / Parlophone / EMI]

Richard Hawley

Standing At The Sky’s Edge

Mute / Parlophone / EMI


Release Date:
7th May 2012

CD, vinyl+CD & digital

She Brings The Sunlight

Standing At The Sky’s Edge

Time Will Bring You Winter

Down In The Woods

Seek It

Don’t Stare At The Sun

The Wood Collier’s Grave

Leave Your Body Behind You


From the outside, it looks like no place for strangers. Just a shade west of Sheffield city centre, Fagan’s pub stands alone, among factories, depots and warehouses. Other hostelries lure you in with the promise of hot food and happy hour. But Fagan’s makes no such concessions. Anyone making the necessary leap of faith, however, is rewarded with the best fish and chips in Sheffield, a landlord (Tom) who bluffly litters his conversation with quotes from Sophocles and Shakespeare and a celestial pint of Guinness. All the original fixtures and fittings are present and correct. Fagan’s is a beautiful contradiction: not quite what it first seems, yet Sheffield through and through. More than at any time in his creative life, it seems entirely appropriate that we should find Richard Hawley here. “Welcome to my world,” he sings by way of greeting, to the tune of the eponymous Jim Reeves song. “I’ve been coming here over half my life.”

Set aside whatever you think familiarity has taught you about the artist whose name graced 2005’s Mercury-nominated Coles Corner, its top ten successor Lady’s Bridge and 2009’s universally-acclaimed Truelove’s Gutter. If Richard Hawley had indefinitely continued to plough the sonic furrow that had prompted the likes of Nancy Sinatra, Duane Eddy and Lisa Marie Presley to enlist his services, who could have blamed him? With the release of Hawley’s seventh album Standing At The Sky’s Edge, something has changed. No strings, this time. “I decided to play the guitar this time,” he explains. For one of his generation’s most venerated guitar players, it seems like an odd thing to say. At least it does until you press play. Electric guitars fill the newly vacated space with colours that mirror the blasted industrial sunsets of Sheffield. The inspired involvement of Alan Moulder at the mixing stage added extra bite to the finished article. But way before that moment, Hawley knew he might be onto a good thing with the very first reaction he elicited. “My wife said she’s always wanted me to stop being so black and white,” he smiles, “So as far as she was concerned, it didn’t come a moment too soon.”

Zone in to the album’s opener and you might be inclined to agree. One minute and twenty seconds into She Brings The Sunlight, none of the usual reference points used when describing the Hawley’s music will help you. As the song explodes into savage psychedelic colour, Hawley sounds like a man drilling into a bedrock of white noise and hitting a slick of pure melody. The sense of scale is breathtaking. Hawley has written no shortage of love songs over the course of his life, but this is something different. “The song is about being physically attracted to someone you truly love,” he explains. “People talk about that like it’s a cheesy thing, but I wanted to do justice to what it really feels like. I want to f***ing applaud when my wife walks into a room. It’s like a revelation.” In order to do justice to that scale of emotional intensity, Hawley reconnected to some of the music that provided him with some of his maiden epiphanies. He may have grown up listening to his parents’ country and rock’n’roll 45s. As a teenager though, seeking to establish his own musical identity, Hawley’s recreational experimentation led him to lysergic expeditionaries like Syd Barrett, The Stooges, The Seeds, Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Chocolate Watchband.

A renewed fondness for those artists seemed to dovetail into changes that were happening in Hawley’s own world. The death of close friend and musician Tim McCall prompted 45 year-old Hawley to ponder the purpose of our own brief time here. Similarly instrumental in marking the creative path ahead was an encounter between Hawley and a friend who had recently lost his wife. “We were talking about astronomy. I’ve spent my whole life looking up at the stars, but for this person, it was a relatively recent thing. I asked him why he had taken it up, and he said, ‘I’ve always been interested, but I took it up because I wanted to see if my wife’s face was there.’ It hit me like a bullet that this level of loss could be turned into something so beautiful.”

The reverberations of that conversation are detectable on one of the album’s keynote performances. For a song suffused with such a sense of cosmic serenity, Don’t Stare At The Sun covers a huge distance: a meditation that took inspiration from – on one hand – a woozy morning shared by young son and sleep-deprived father flying a kite in the park and – on the other – the fate that met Isaac Newton when he decided to stare into the sun. “He burnt the retinas in his eyes,” explains Hawley, “so that, from that moment on, everything he saw was gold.”

For Hawley all these disparate elements seemed to lock into each other quite naturally on the songs he found himself writing. Shortly after finishing work on his last album, he acquired a new companion – “a clever as f*** collie” – which was all he needed to disengage with popular culture and embark on long walks to Eccleshall Woods on the outskirts of the city. Daring himself to get hopelessly lost, he stumbled upon one of Sheffield’s oldest monuments. Known as The Charcoal Burner’s Grave, this was the final resting place of George Yardley and one of the first places to bear the name of Sheffield. This was all he needed to effectively light the touch paper on spooked folk-noir ballad The Wood Collier’s Grave. “It’s like entering another world,” says Hawley, “There’s neolithic shit going off in there. Graffiti from 1,000s years ago.” It was here also that Hawley was inspired to write the album’s most cathartically raw track. Built around the simplest of blues riffs, delivered with a raw abandon that suggests countless turntable miles notched up listening to the MC5, Down In The Woods surely looks set to be an instant live favourite. Another vindication of Hawley’s decision to replace the strings of yore with guitars and – thanks to the resourcefulness of his keyboard player John Trier – rocket noises.

You only need to gaze at the titles of records like Lowedges, Coles Corner and Lady’s Bridge to realise that Hawley’s music doubles up as a rich psychogeography of his hometown. As with those albums, Standing At The Sky’s Edge derives its title from an area of Sheffield (Sky Edge) which achieved a degree of infamy as a result of the gang warfare which stemmed from illegal gambling rings there. The problem became so serious that the Flying Squad was formed in order to re-establish law and order here. “Knives are a part of Sheffield’s history,” says Hawley, “Our parents made them. We carried them around as kids, but we were always taught to use them responsibly, you know?” On the title track, Sheffield’s past acts as the backdrop to a dystopian present of knife crime exacerbated by Governmental neglect. “The difference between then and now,” he says, “is that the biggest gangsters are in power, finishing off the asset-stripping that Thatcher started decades previously.”

If there’s an overarching theme to Hawley’s album, it’s that there’s beauty and meaning to be found in accepting how tiny we are in the general scheme of things. On the smouldering cinematic declamations of Leave Your Body Behind You, the grief felt at the passing of friends is alchemised into something almost celebratory. “So much damage has been done to this world by people who get all their knowledge from one book – be it The Bible or whatever. And if we could just allow ourselves to be liberated by the fact that this is our only time here, we could just get on with what really matters. I really think we could have put a man on the moon 1000 years ago if we accepted that.” It’s a theme to which Hawley returns on the album’s final song. “Here we are/Lent to the earth by the stars,” begins Before (featuring a guest appearance from musician Martin Simpson), before embarking on a journey from starlit reverie to a slo-mo display of fretboard pyrotechnics. “We create entire religions in order to convince ourselves that we’re not going to die,” explains Hawley, “They tie us down and they make us ugly and unkind.” Because, as we established, this pub isn’t all it seems, the landlord interjects with a line from Hamlet. “It’s the gravedigger scene,” says Tom, ‘Imperial Caesar, dead in clay. Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.’ That’s the basic premise of all science. Matter cannot be created or destroyed.”

Enough, however, of the revelations that inspired Hawley to write these songs. For fans getting to know Standing At The Sky’s Edge for the first time, the most immediate revelation is the change in Hawley’s guitar playing. As a teenager, playing across the beer halls of Germany with musician Chuck Fowler, Hawley was taught that not drawing attention to yourself signified a job well done. As a session player and (briefly) a guitarist with Pulp, it was an ethos to which he continued to adhere. Lest we forget, he never imagined he’d see his own name on his records. The gentle persuasion of his friends in Pulp convinced him otherwise. Only now though, does Hawley seem to have allowed himself to realise that displaying the full extent of his capabilities isn’t the same thing as showing off. “I was a guitarist before I was a singer. To a certain degree that’s how I still see myself. And so, I’m conscious of adding to the number of bad albums by solo guitarists.”

There’s really no need to worry on that score. It’s actually hard not to be amazed when you listen to Standing At The Sky’s Edge and hear what he’s been holding back all these years: the stunning instrumental passage on Don’t Stare At The Sun; the filthy euphoria of his playing on She Brings The Sunlight; and on, Time Will Bring You Winter, the divine synergy of a hazy multitracked chorus and the kaleidoscopic raga-rock passages that swell up underneath it. Measure out all of Richard Hawley’s career in vinyl hours starting from midnight and the first rays of the morning sun coincide with the opening bars of Hawley’s seventh album. Somehow that seems entirely fitting: Standing At The Sky’s Edge is the sound of a major talent stepping into the light. The complete Richard Hawley.


“Down In The Woods (Later with Jools Holland)”

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Richard Hawley

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