You used to know where we were with a Richard Hawley album. Unabashed old-fashioned romanticism? Check. Lushly orchestrated ballads? Check again. That deep, rich voice cracking with emotion? Check yet again. An album title referencing an area of Hawley’s beloved hometown, Sheffield? Oh but of course.
And, up to a few years ago, that’s exactly what we had when Richard Hawley released an album – sure, they may have all sounded very similar, but there was a comforting familiarity to them. And then, things started to get weird. 2009’s brilliant Truelove’s Gutter dumped the orchestration and brought in a sparse, fragile feel and songs nearly 10 minutes long. Then, Hawley’s last album, Standing On The Sky’s Edge was a nod to psychedelic rock, full of squealing guitars and raging against the government.
Now, Hawley’s wrong-footing us yet again by going back to his roots. Hollow Meadows is the most recognisably ‘Hawley-sounding’ album since Lady’s Bridge – as soon as the tender guitar kicks in on the opening track I Still Want You, it feels like sinking into a warm bath: luxurious, That opening track, in fact, recalls one of Hawley’s finest moments, The Ocean – both in the gentle swelling of the melody, the subtle rise of strings on the chorus and that unashamed romantic streak, tinged with a hint of Sheffield sauce (“I don’t want to lower the tone, but you know there’s still a little spare meat on the bone”). It’s like welcoming home an old friend.
The songs on Hollow Meadows were written as Hawley was recovering from both a broken leg and a slipped disc, and therefore there’s a degree of introspection to be had. This can rail from Hawley’s ‘grumpy old man’ musings about modern technology on The World Looks Down to a touching tribute such as Heart Of Oak, written for Hawley’s friend and fellow singer Norma Waterson. Mostly though, these are just simple songs about love, family and friendship – tracks like the stately Tuesday AM and especially the reflective Nothing Like A Friend stand out as some of Hawley’s most touching compositions in years.
The general mood is downbeat and wistful, although there are some nods to Hawley’s previous album in the fiercly rocking Which Way, while the aforementioned Heart Of Oak also showcases some fiery guitar riffs. Some may find the general tone a bit too laid-back and relaxed, but only the churlish would deny that these are some beautifully crafted songs, with the crisp production (by Hawley, Shez Sheridan and long-time collaborator Colin Elliott), showing them off to their best advantage.
The various nods to Hawley’s hometown also help to add to the comforting familarity – as well as appearances from fellow Sheffield musicians Jarvis Cocker and Slow Club‘s Rebecca Taylor, Hollow Meadows itself refers to an area on the edge of the Peak District where some of Hawley’s ancestors apparently once lived. While there may not be a song that reaches out and completely grabs you, like Something Is, Coles Corner or Run For Me may have done in the past, Hollow Meadows is yet another impossibly accomplished record from one of our national treasures.