Unlike some music journalists, I’m not hugely sentimental about where I come from. I’ve worked with people who’ve been pathologically loyal to the music that comes out of their hometowns, in a way which seemed to contradict their actual taste. Of course, the fact that the musical riches of North Nottinghamshire are pretty skimpy might have something to do with it.
Occasionally, though, I do feel the odd pang of loyalty when I hear music from Sheffield. It’s the city closest to where I grew up and, in fact, the place where I was born. I felt it the other day when I was reading something about Richard Hawley, where he talked about Jessop’s hospital being knocked down, and how his mother had worked there for 27 years. I was born there, as it happens, and though my memories of the place are hardly substantial, it did strike a small nerve.
Hawley is good at that. In fact, listening to “Lady’s Bridge”, his new album, it occurs to me that he constructs a faded picture of Sheffield that’s so compelling, it can provoke a sense of false nostalgia in anyone who hears it. A lot of the names and territories he describes are alien to me, too; the cultural meaning of Coles Corner is probably, I think, more relevant to my parents than to me. But it’s his evocation of a past – imbuing industrial South Yorkshire in the ’50s and ’60s with an Americanised, mythological sheen – that’s so seductive.
“Lady’s Bridge” is no radical departure from Hawley’s previous solo albums but, if anything, it’s rooted even more firmly in a glittery dream of Sheffield’s past. “Tonight The Streets Are Ours” is a fantastic song; like many of Hawley’s best, it sounds like the music Morrissey should be making now, instead of the arthritic attempts at rock relevance that have padded out his last two solo albums.
Hawley doesn’t bother with relevance, as a cursory listen to the backing vocals to “Tonight The Streets Are Ours” (cooing, schmaltzy, reminiscent of The Ladybirds, perhaps) will attest. For much of the time, his music fits his pose. The Beatles are yet to release a single. Rock’n’roll may have burned itself out. Corned beef is a strong possibility for tea.
Hawley is so good at this, though, as his guitar twangs discreetly and his big, crusted voice fills out the sound, that he gets away with it every time. Romance seeps out of every one of his lovely melodies, sometimes inadvertently. “Dark Road” finds him in Johnny Cash mode (or perhaps Lee Marvin; there’s a big “Wanderin’ Star” echo here), the lonesome drifter looking for a place he can call home. It’s so wholehearted, so meticulous, it kind of transcends corniness.
On “The Sea Calls”, his wandering aesthetic becomes even stronger (Uncut’s Paul Moody points out, very wisely, how much he sounds like Fred Neil on this one). Here, though, the music stretches out of focus. There’s a tingling, cavernous feel to the production that recalls “Strangeways Here We Come” (“I Won’t Share You”), which expands into a sort of reverberant ambience. If not exactly modern-sounding, then certainly out of time. As if Hawley, lost ’50s lover, is stuck in limbo, trying to find his way back home. Quite lovely.