If I had to pick an artist of the last decade, Richard Hawley would be a strong contender. ‘Lowedges’, ‘Late Night Final’ and ‘Truelove’s Gutter’ were all close to being included in this list and only really missed out because of how much they split the non-existent vote, if you’ll pardon the rather crude expression. This album is so heart-meltingly perfect that it leaves the others a little way behind and, as such, they tend to be grouped together in my affections and harder to separate out for placings in the lower thirties or somesuch. Putting this one straight in the top ten was a far easier decision.
My final year of university was spent largely in the Headingley area of Leeds, occasionally venturing onto campus to do some work. After halls and the always imminent danger of the hideous block of flats where I lived for my second year, the final year was like a suburban paradise. In amongst the not really all that interesting retail options in Headingley could be found the charmingly untidy Polar Bear record shop. It had a brother in the city centre which offered better stock and seemingly better prices, but its convenience meant that I often found myself wandering over for a bit of quality browsing time. With such vast swathes of time set aside to intricate exploration of a fairly limited stock, I wasn’t far from having a pretty clear idea of exactly what they had for sale. When I found myself hugely taken with ‘The Nights Are Cold’ by Richard Hawley, on a free Uncut cover CD, I was pretty certain that I’d seen his album in Polar Bear for £7.99. At the next available opportunity, I was back in the shop, handing over the somewhat exhausted Switch card for yet more music before spending the next twenty four hours or so absorbing the beautiful music found therein.
I was already sold on his knack with a tune, but I somehow didn’t realise at the time, or when ‘Lowedges’ appeared for that matter either, quite how much I would end up loving his music. It was the release of ‘Coles Corner’ in September 2005 that suddenly slotted everything into place. The dearly departed (and much written about already) Reveal Records in Derby had it on in the shop when I popped in on the Saturday after release and it sounded magnificent. On this occasion, their excellent choice of music-to-shop-to was irrelevant, as that was the exact album I’d come in to buy in the first place, based on several gushing broadsheet reviews ahead of its release.
Everything about it is perfect. The cover art is beautiful, the blurred elderly couple in the background making the lonely Richard in the foreground seem even more alone and anxious. And the songs. Oh, the fucking songs! The attention to detail is phenomenal and the effect is utterly beguiling. One of the album’s strongest songs is put right at the front and its title track is quite some way to set out your stall. Grandiose, eloquent and lyrically full of romantic expectation, it perfectly captures that feeling of incipient affairs of the heart.
‘Just Like The Rain’ canters along, effortlessly sounding like a sixties classic that somehow escaped the public’s attention the first time around, while ‘Hotel Room’ is one of the least annoying, and therefore one of the best, songs written about rock stars and drug addiction. It’s a far from ‘woe is me’ as it could possible be and manages to make an awkward subject matter strangely compelling. ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ made for a splendid single choice and ushers in side two of the album perfectly, the trademark soaring guitar break doing some of its best work on the album around the 2:30 mark.
The aforementioned title track slugs it out with ‘The Ocean’ to be the very best track on the album. ‘Coles Corner’ just edges it in my book, but the latter track is so good Hawley pretty much remade it on his latest, ‘Truelove’s Gutter’, as ‘Open Up Your Door’. It swoops, it soars and if it involved a bit more beef-slapping and box-thumping it could be a Scott Walker classic.
As I said earlier, plenty of his records were contenders for this list and I don’t hesitate in recommending each and every one of them to you. I would also urge you to catch him in concert at some point, provided you’re a bit of a muso and can delight in having the hairs on the back of your neck stood to attention by some delicately deployed percussion. There are those who reckon his stuff is a bit samey and that each album is a retread of the last. I don’t really buy that, and the one aforementioned remake aside, his most recent release is a really step on from 2007’s ‘Lady’s Bridge’. He’s never going to a chart-shagging superstar but I can’t imagine he’d ever want to be. Just so long as enough of us keep parting with our cash for his sublime songs that he can keep putting them out there, I think the bequiffed one will be perfectly happy. I know I will be.