Richard Hawley Truelove’s Gutter

[Mute; 2009]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: British baritones
Others: Scott Walker, Jarvis Cocker

The debt Richard Hawley owes Elvis Presley weighs so heavily at times that it’s impossible to ignore. So many aspects of Presley’s mannerisms and vocal style creep into Hawley’s performances that they could almost be mistaken for deadpan impersonations. Hawley, however, isn’t the least bit embarrassed by the fixation. In fact, he’s never been afraid to borrow heavily from his main influences – Presley, Roy Orbison, Scott Walker -- and to be sure, the impact of all three can be heard on each of Hawley’s albums since 2002’s Late Night Final.

Lately, it seems he’s been listening to Johnny Cash and George Jones as well. Hawley’s new album, Truelove’s Gutter abandons the lush strings and complex production of previous work for a more straightforward style, and the results bring to mind the honest, plainspoken albums that Cash and Jones recorded in the mid-70s. While Hawley remains an indie pop singer/songwriter, lyrically, there’s country-tinged sorrow on tracks like “Ashes on the Fire”, which begins with the protagonist recounting simply, “I wrote you a letter/ Late last night/ The words on the paper/ My true heart’s desire.” By morning, however, the letter ends up, as the song’s maudlin title suggests, in ashes.

And there’s the rub with Hawley’s new stripped-down approach: in the past, he could hide trite phrases in the mix of orchestration and layers of production that bathed his songs in a warm full sound. With much of that absent this time around, the listener finds time to really contemplate the lyrics and, in doing so, discovers that songs like “Don’t Get Hung Up in Your Soul” ring hollow in the end. As expected, the song ultimately offers the clichéd advice given in the title and chorus, but after opening with the question, “Where you gonna go/ Now they’ve closed the old home down?”, those few words do little to temper the gloomy atmosphere.

“Soldier On” moves in the same direction, opening by describing a difficult situation, then offering the banal suggestion to simply “soldier on”. But what sets this song apart is the moment several minutes in, where the initial melancholy breaks and a rousing steel guitar solo, accompanied by drummer Dean Beresford’s driving crash cymbal, soars to a climactic finish. It’s one of the few tracks on the album where Hawley’s guitar manages to save us from what would have otherwise been another dreary exercise in describing his current misfortunes.

In a recent BBC interview, Hawley acknowledged that this album comes from a darker place than its predecessors, further adding that some of the painful experiences are still very personal. Indeed, he’s always written about growing up in the English steel town of Sheffield, but never this solemnly. It’s unfortunate that he’s experiencing so much difficulty these days, as conceivably, 2005’s Cole’s Corner and 2007’s Lady’s Bridge were recorded during happier times. Given that perspective, I hope things turn better for him -- and soon.

1. As the Dawn Breaks
2. Open Up Your Door
3. Ashes on the Fire
4. Remorse Code
5. Don’t Get Hung Up In Your Soul
6. Soldier On
7. For Your Lover Give Some Time
8. Don’t You Cry

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