Richard Hawley's last album, Cole's Corner, was nominated and shortlisted for the Mercury Prize (the British equivalent of the Pulitzer). He may not have won it (the Arctic Monkeys did), but it did bring his name and ultimately his music to a far greater group of people than had ever been exposed to them before. This is a grand thing, simply because Hawley's articulate, timeless brand of rock-based pop is sophisticated, focused, and ultimately quite beautiful. In this day and age, a man who can deliver three solid albums and an EP without a crap tune has got something. Cole's Corner, named for a geographical location in Sheffield where Hawley lives, was an elaborate meditation on friendship, memory, and love, inhabited by the ghosts for whom that little piece of real estate -- the concrete corner outside a now bulldozed department store -- was idealized as a piece of hidden history in the human heart. Being an album celebrated by nearly everyone but those critics who have sawdust instead of blood in their veins, it might have been a difficult act to follow and a singular event in the career of a less talented songwriter.
For Hawley, that is not the case. Lady's Bridge -- named for another locale in Sheffield -- is as moving, tender, and literate as its predecessor, without the least bit of formula or pretension applied. The location is Sheffield's oldest bridge, a place that divided the working-class part of the city from its upper-crust denizens. Hawley grew up on the poor side of it. According to what he has said in interviews, Lady's Bridge is also a metaphor for the crossing of a bridge in his own life -- and that doesn't necessarily mean his career. Hawley's father, Dave, a lifelong Teddy Boy from the first generation of the Edwardian youth subculture in the '50, was a gone rockabilly cat who worshipped Gene Vincent (smart man) and played music his entire life. He worked all day and played at night with everyone from the likes of Muddy Waters to the local wannabes; he was a real working musician, and a profound influence on his son. Dave Hawley died after a yearlong battle with lung cancer as Richard was in the process of making this record. His presence is deeply felt on the punchy little rockabilly number "Serious," with its jaunty rhythm, doo wop harmonies, and Hawley's warm, silvery guitar lines strumming and playing those beautiful Paul Burlison lines in the background. His suave baritone has the phrasing of the era down, but he sings in his own voice, and when the reverb-laden guitar break inevitably happens, he doesn't make a big deal of it. It's a timeless pop song that could have been written in 1956, but this is no Stray Cats romp; it comes via a much more literate approach to writing in general. Hawley leaves the crap on the cutting-room floor and gets the tune itself out and doesn't worry about the rest.
This is followed by the album's first single, the brilliant "Tonight the Streets Are Ours." This track is simply gloriously written and performed. There are acoustic and electric guitars, a string orchestra, a backing chorus, a tinkling piano, and even perhaps a glockenspiel. That said, its tight melody and Hawley's relaxed delivery create a multi-textured realm of hopes and dreams that usually exists nowhere but the movies. Truth be told, this cut is one of the only songs in this young century that's as good or better than the movies. It's actually a textbook example of what makes a great song: catchy melody, tight bridge, and a sendoff that's out of this world with its short ramp of instruments. In addition, the listener knows what the tune is about just by the title, but is still uplifted when the full measure comes booming over the box. There are also astonishingly sad ballads here, such as the album opener, "Valentine" (it took cojones to open a record with a song so sad). It's about a pair of lovers who have been together for a long time, and one of them is leaving the world, and is afraid of what that means. The tough realization here, put in an original way, is that most relationships -- especially the successful ones -- end in this way. "Don't need no valentines, no no/Don't need no roses/They just take me back in time, no no/Not you're not here/Anymore/Not anymore." Acoustic guitars strum, strings swell, and drums, heavy on the tom-toms, plod along and underscore every line as Hawley allows his voice to emote just enough to break the listener's heart into bits. Truth be told, though this is a contemporary song, Jack Nitszche would have killed to produce it, and Roy Orbison and Elvis would have paid loads to record it. Hawley's not Chris Isaak; he's in his body, he is the song, he's not a persona -- the song is. That's what matters on Lady's Bridge, as it has on all of his records.
A listen to the forlorn and hauntingly beautiful "Roll River Roll," written about the great Sheffield Flood that claimed dozens of lives, reveals not some dramatic tragedy, but the act of surrender to this force of nature that allows the victim to forget everything but the journey "home." Its waltz tempo is kept by Dean Beresford's kit, a double bassline by Colin Elliot (who co-produced with Hawley), a pair of guitars by Hawley and Shez Sheridan, and John Trier's timeless and elegant but in-the-groove piano, supported by strings that never overwhelm the lighter-than-air melody and harmony in the tune. Another fine tune in waltz tempo is "The Sea Calls." Framed by piano, harmonium, high-strung guitars, vibes, accordion, theremin, Spanish guitar, banjo, lyre, and a drum kit with brushes, it's full of the sea's stormy nature while gliding its way home atop lulling waves. It's perhaps the first "goodbye, dear" sea shanty written in the 21st century disguised as a sophisticated pop song. The bona fide cut time "I'm Looking for Someone to Find Me" evokes "Don't Be Cruel" in its refrain, but it's got more going on. There are backing voices like the Anita Kerr Singers with the Jordanaires, strings, and that rumbling, popping snare and bass drum work of Beresford. Hawley's melody could have been written in the '40s, '50s, '60s -- or now! Its got a big reverbed Duane Eddy-sounding guitar in the middle and gorgeous harmony singing by the band. Hawley's sad song is so upbeat it's impossible to be depressed by it, but it expresses longing in such a pure and direct way that it's nearly profound.
It's followed by the utterly sad "Our Darkness." Again, the title needs no explanation and it's such a complex tune, adorned by the Stocksbridge Brass Band, Trier's Fender Rhodes, a ton of drama, and Elliot playing timpani! The real question is, why isn't it schmaltzy? Because it all feels real, as if it's happening right in front of you. Hawley displaces the surroundings and makes them all part of his voice. There isn't anything but the scene in the tune playing out in front of the listener. It's almost as if this man was born out of time because his work is so utterly rooted in the past, but it feels completely contemporary. He would have been a monster talent to contend with in Doc Pomus' era. It comes to an end on "The Sun Refused to Shine," another atmosphere-drenched ballad that offers the revelation by a trusted friend that the subject was in such a state of self-deception and denial that no one and nothing could cut through it -- it had to play itself out. The wall of sound here is thick and dreamy with electric guitars, echo-chambered feedback (that's easy on the ears), Rhodes piano, vibes, a lap steel snarling in the backdrop, and just layers of it all floating through the tune. Hawley just delivers the words as fact. It's a devastating closer and it couldn't go anywhere else.
Ultimately, Lady's Bridge is a sad kind of record that doesn't leave one depressed. In the great rock & roll tradition, it leaves the listener feeling alive, full of a dreamy kind of awe at what has just transpired and the plain-fact realization is that this is an absolutely brilliant record by a middle-aged man who is just beginning to hit his stride, though everything he's done is relegated to the realm of an accessible kind of art. Listeners may have heard sounds like this before, but never assembled in this way -- and played, not sampled. Lady's Bridge proves that Cole's Corner was no one-off, and dare it be said, this surpasses the previous album in diversity, depth, and elegance without ever sounding false. Anyone who hears this set should be righteously and rightfully floored.