The album title, another location in Richard Hawley’s ongoing emotional roadmap to the soul of Sheffield, refers to an establishment out on the edge of the Peak District which has housed the variously afflicted through the years – a care-home where the rich would dump their defective offspring, a borstal for naughty boys, a hospital for shell-shocked soldiers, a hospice for the mentally troubled. It’s a place where things were hidden away, a veil concealing problematic issues that would otherwise disturb the seeming surface calm of family and society.
An odd choice then, perhaps, for an album that finds Hawley delving deeper beneath his own still waters to confront the kinds of nagging anxieties that only increase the older one gets. It’s almost as if he’s opted to uncover the hidden secrets of his own Hollow Meadows, shine a light on troubling issues through the illuminating medium of music. Like its inmates, Hawley was stricken down, forced into solitude and inactivity: and when you’ve spent long, painful months laid out recovering from a slipped disc, unable to move, with just the birds visible through your window for company, the mind does tend to turn in upon itself, and reflection prompt a deeper understanding of your place within the world – which is the general, albeit loose, theme of Hollow Meadows.
At first, it sounds as if Hawley’s retreating from the folksy psychedelia of Standing At The Sky’s Edge, into the smooth, retro songcraft of his earlier albums: sultry vibrato guitar heralds “I Still Want You”, a lilting waltz with Mellotron and strings, in which he professes his enduring devotion “until the sun grows cold”. And the ballad croon of “Serenade Of Blue” draws on similarly cosmic portents to express a reluctant emotional fissure, the gently drifting descent of its melody like a leaf fluttering to earth. But elsewhere, psychedelic touches percolate subtly through the songs, fraying their edges with the sympathetic string drones of “Nothing Like A Friend”, the shimmering guitar and organ textures of “Welcome The Sun”, and the psych-folk swirl that closes “Sometimes I Feel”, stippled with children’s voices from just outside Hawley’s garden-shed studio, headily redolent of the back-porch hippie bucolicism that spurred on Traffic.
“Sometimes I Feel” is the fulcrum around which the whole album pivots, a litany of “all these things I know to be true” laid over what sounds like harpsichord arpeggios. It’s Hawley’s most reflective lyric, one streaked with the kind of almost Zen acceptance that comes from lonely recuperation. “Sometimes, if you really don’t want to go the way the world is,” he sings, “you just can’t stop it.” And there’s much of the world he doesn’t go along with, not least the screen obsession derided in “The World Looks Down”, whose punning title is further developed in a series of rhetorical questions: “How did we ever dream at night, before the screen took hold?/And where’s the wisdom in our time that makes our children old?” His own children’s ageing is most painfully confronted in the concluding “What Love Means”, written in the immediate anguished aftermath (“did we pass the test?”) of his daughter’s leaving home: the paradox being, of course, that there’s ultimately no coherent answer to what love means.
Sung to solo guitar accompaniment, it’s one of several tracks reflecting the growing influence of folk music upon Hawley’s art. His neighbour, omni-talented guitar virtuoso Martin Simpson, layers nimble banjo arpeggios over slide resonator guitar on “Long Time Down”, one of a brace of tracks considering the impact of cycling elemental forces on our fragile grasp upon endurance; and “Heart Of Oak” is a fulsome tribute to his friend and mentor Norma Waterson. Ironically, it’s the most out-and-out rocker on the entire album, its trenchant, chugging riff striated with distorted guitar hooks and lead lines; but its message is for the ages: “You’re precious to me, like Blake’s poetry/I wish you well, old heart of oak”.
As for Hawley himself, his own situation is perhaps best summarised in
“Welcome The Sun”, where the admonishment to escape the shadows and face the light again is surely directed at his own recuperating self. As he notes, “You owe your allegiance to the fealty of your needs”.
The album had its genesis in your enforced recuperation…
I slipped a disc in my back, compounding what happened a year before, when I broke my leg while on tour. An unlucky series of events! I ended up just lying on my back for four or five months, and when you’re in that state it’s easy to get negative, so I tried to stay positive. I started writing songs, and as a result, without wanting to over-egg the pudding, your mind goes to deeper places.
There’s a very philosophical cast to “Sometimes I Feel”.
That’s my favourite on the record. It just seemed to appear out of nowhere. It strikes me that we pay so much attention to our outer appearance and well-being, but very little attention to our inner well-being – and a lot of this record is about that. Because I couldn’t move about, it made me spring-clean the way I thought: because what drives us as people is our thoughts, and without wanting to sound like some fucking hippy, it’s a matter of getting that balance between your inner being and the outside world. It can cause a lot of shit if you don’t get that right. And as you get older, you need a bit more maintenance with these things.
Is it Mellotron or strings on “I Still Want You”?
It’s both: a Mellotron, with the awesome Nancy Kerr playing two tracks of viola with it, to add the bowing touch. The Mellotron’s a lovely sound, it has a unique sound all its own, nothing really like strings, but Nancy put emotion back into the part. Though I’m not sure she’s that pleased with what I did to her viola part on “The World Looks Down”: I played it from an iPhone at the bottom of a big metal bin, and re-recorded it from the top, because I wanted that sort of Bollywood edge to it. She looked at me as if I’d dropped some acid!
INTERVIEW: ANDY GILL
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