Standing At The Sky’s Edge and hear what he’s been holding back all these years: the stunning instrumental passage on Don’t Stare At The Sun; the filthy euphoria of his playing on She Brings The Sunlight; and on, Time Will Bring You Winter, the divine synergy of a hazy multitracked chorus and the kaleidoscopic raga-rock passages that swell up underneath it. Measure out all of Richard Hawley’s career in vinyl hours starting from midnight and the first rays of the morning sun coincide with the opening bars of Hawley’s seventh album. Somehow that seems entirely fitting: Standing At The Sky’s Edge is the sound of a major talent stepping into the light. The complete Richard Hawley.
Set aside whatever you think familiarity has taught you about the artist whose name graced 2005’s Mercury-nominated Coles Corner, its top ten successor Lady’s Bridge and 2009’s universally-acclaimed Truelove’s Gutter. With the release of Hawley’s seventh album Standing At The Sky’s Edge, something has changed. No strings, this time. “I decided to play the guitar this time,” he explains. For one of his generation’s most venerated guitar players, it seems like an odd thing to say. At least it does until you press play. Electric guitars fill the newly vacated space with colours that mirror the blasted industrial sunsets of Sheffield. The inspired involvement of Alan Moulder at the mixing stage added extra bite to the finished article. But way before that moment, Hawley knew he might be onto a good thing with the very first reaction he elicited. “My wife said she’s always wanted me to stop being so black and white,” he smiles, “So as far as she was concerned, it didn’t come a moment too soon.”
In order to do justice to that scale of emotional intensity, Hawley reconnected to some of the music that provided him with some of his maiden epiphanies. He may have grown up listening to his parents’ country and rock’n’roll 45s. As a teenager though, seeking to establish his own musical identity, Hawley’s recreational experimentation led him to lysergic expeditionaries like Syd Barrett, The Stooges, The Seeds, Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Chocolate Watchband.
A renewed fondness for those artists seemed to dovetail into changes that were happening in Hawley’s own world. The death of close friend and musician Tim McCall prompted 45 year-old Hawley to ponder the purpose of our own brief time here. Similarly instrumental in marking the creative path ahead was an encounter between Hawley and a friend who had recently lost his wife. “We were talking about astronomy. I’ve spent my whole life looking up at the stars, but for this person, it was a relatively recent thing. I asked him why he had taken it up, and he said, ‘I’ve always been interested, but I took it up because I wanted to see if my wife’s face was there.’ It hit me like a bullet that this level of loss could be turned into something so beautiful.”
You only need to gaze at the titles of records like Lowedges, Coles Corner and Lady’s Bridge to realise that Hawley’s music doubles up as a rich psychogeography of his hometown. As with those albums, Standing At The Sky’s Edge derives its title from an area of Sheffield (Sky Edge) which achieved a degree of infamy as a result of the gang warfare which stemmed from illegal gambling rings there. The problem became so serious that the Flying Squad was formed in order to re-establish law and order here. “Knives are a part of Sheffield’s history,” says Hawley, “Our parents made them. We carried them around as kids, but we were always taught to use them responsibly, you know?” On the title track, Sheffield’s past acts as the backdrop to a dystopian present of knife crime exacerbated by Governmental neglect. “The difference between then and now,” he says, “is that the biggest gangsters are in power, finishing off the asset-stripping that Thatcher started decades previously.”
If there’s an overarching theme to Hawley’s album, it’s that there’s beauty and meaning to be found in accepting how tiny we are in the general scheme of things. On the smouldering cinematic declamations of Leave Your Body Behind You, the grief felt at the passing of friends is alchemised into something almost celebratory. “So much damage has been done to this world by people who get all their knowledge from one book – be it The Bible or whatever. And if we could just allow ourselves to be liberated by the fact that this is our only time here, we could just get on with what really matters. I really think we could have put a man on the moon 1000 years ago if we accepted that.” It’s a theme to which Hawley returns on the album’s final song.“