Sometimes the music world frustrates me. Call me arrogant, closed-minded, or stupid, but I go through phases of nothing appealing to me. For months on end.
And then, in one go, all of my despair disappears. All of the things I missed in music – touching lyrics, subtle orchestration, memorable melodies – cone rushing back into the mix. This, for me, is how I would describe June 2019.
In the space of a couple of weeks in June, not only did Bruce Springsteen stun me with ‘Western Stars’ (review on that to come another day), but Richard Hawley released his new album, ‘Further’.
What’s more: both are contenders for album of the year.
Hawley, from Sheffield, England, stands with eight solo albums to his name, all with varying degrees of success and styles. From old-fashioned crooner, to athemic rocker, to ambient experimentalist, Hawley treads quite a few different paths through his career. In no way are these switches jarring or confusing, but complimentary and flowing.
On ‘Further’, all these styles come into one place, making the album a kind of greatest hits, at a the same time as something completely new.
Britpop, ballads, and beauty
There is a solid argument to be made for The Longpigs (Hawley’s old band) being the best forgotten band of the nineties. Bolshy, brash, yet boldly beautiful, The Longpigs could certainly hold their own against The Verve, Pulp, and even Oasis.
Today, perhaps the closest band around is the Arctic Monkeys, bringing Britpop bounce with Queens of the Stone Age groove. But make no mistake: Hawley and his ilk started this vibe.
And this push for tenderness through vigour is a style Hawley hasn’t lost. While many of his songs step far into the sixties crooner style, hits like ‘Off My Mind’ and ‘Is There a Pill?’ keep the nineties thumping style alive.
Balancing this whirlwind of guitars are moments of sensitivity and real joy, notably on the songs ‘Midnight Train’ and ‘My Little Treasures’, the latter sounding as close as you’ll get today to a Tom Petty and Roy Orbison cocktail. It’s enticing and enchanting.
A personal gripe of mine today with modern pop-rock music is the lack of orchestration. I’ve no idea why orchestras stopped being used so frequently in rock hits, but my theory is that the sheer cost of recruiting an orchestra became prohibitively expensive.
It isn’t easy work to orchestrate, either. And, quite frankly, I doubt many modern musicians have any idea how to do it.
Kasabian – a band in a totally different genre, for sure – buck the trend a little, with horns and string sections accompanying their otherwise experimental, fuzzy, hard-rock sound. And across the water in the American country scene, this vintage style of music making is still widely used.
But there is still a loss of the orchestra in mainstream pop-rock. And it is a big loss, not helped by rather questionable sounding synthesizers.
On ‘Further’, the orchestra takes centre stage. Even distorted guitar riffs are backed by violins. It adds a roundness to every single track, giving a depth of anger, pain, or sorrow when needed. It isn’t necessarily innovative, but a style of song making that is certainly missed.
It is this wonderful balance of strings with acoustic guitars, horns with overdriven bass licks, which adds sophistication and colour. Similarly to Springsteen on ‘Western Stars’, Hawley has borrowed from the past and bought it into the present. And it works.
Neil Young reborn?
There is a Neil Young song called ‘Don’t Cry’ which perhaps summarises the contrasts of his career best: soft acoustic rock, mixed with fuzzy grunge. It is like Scott Walker on a drunken rampage.
‘Further’, as an album, is Hawley’s ‘Don’t Cry’. It is a thing of contrast, of beauty, of delight, or wistful memories, and of pain.
With only a couple of tracks just missing the grade, a short running time of 30 minutes, and so many musical styles rolled into one, ‘Further’ is certainly worth adding to your musical collection.
More than this, for Hawley fans everywhere, it might just be his best record yet. Here’s hoping there is further to go.