As Richard Hawley steps back into the ring, his first punch is the hardest. Eighth solo album Further blasts out of the corner with the sonic assault of Off My Mind, confirming the Sheffield singer is completely up for his return to the format. Although a self-styled indie kid, this is a song with its roots in garage rock, a call to arms that impresses greatly with shredded guitars and big brass on top.
The lean textures suit him well, placing a timely reminder to anyone who had Hawley pigeonholed. He remains one of Britain’s most versatile songsmiths, fired anew by the political climate of his homeland, confirmed in his recent interview with musicOMH. Brushing himself down, he sets about these songs with no holds barred enthusiasm. Not a note is here that shouldn’t be, with each song pruned to three minutes or thereabouts, and with a healthy edge to each that suggests they haven’t been altered too much on the production table.
Yet in spite of the ‘no jacket required’ approach of Off My Mind, there are those trademark moments of Hawley that soften the heart and gladden the mind in equal measure. Bittersweet songs tell of loss on one hand but things found on the other. The freely ambling Alone is one, while Further talks with bittersweet tones of how “loneliness is not the same as being on your own”. Meanwhile Midnight Train, where a late traveller has to leave a significant other, is lovely and wistful, Hawley firmly into his role as one of English pop music’s best established musical poets. Thankfully the slippers are never too comfortably under the table in any of this music, which unerringly hits the sweet spot without cloying.
Best of all is My Little Treasures, a song 12 years in the making with origins in the deep friendships Hawley’s late father had with his band mates. “My little treasures, you’re more than old bonds,” he croons affectionately, as the beautifully wrought strings observe from a distance. He goes on to sing of “cold beer in warm places, heartbreak and old faces, with my little treasures”. It is a winsome and poignant tale.
It is one of several ‘heart melters’ on Further. The title track yearns with close harmony and beautifully floated strings, time stopping still for the listener, while Is There A Pill adds subtle humour to its big, blustery guitars and the softer underbelly of the strings. As always the vocals are keenly felt.
Further is a great combination of Sheffield steel and English reserve, with Hawley right back at the top of his game. His work for soundtracks and the musical Standing At The Sky’s Edge has seemingly sharpened his appetite for the conventional pop song, and these beautifully crafted examples are delivered with feelings born wholly of life experience. The songs effortlessly speak to all classes, to all walks of life, from a songwriter who never sings down to his audience. As always, Richard Hawley is one of us.