Richard Hawley's latest album is embued with the same romantic retro ambience as his previous ventures. The former Pulp guitarist turned baritone crooner gives a masterclass in classic pop nostalgia, pitting his melancholy Roy Orbison-cum-Scott Walker vocals against beautifully arranged compositions. Whereas he has garnered some criticism for playing it too straight, and for paying homage to his influences too conspicuously, after a couple of listens the strength of the songwriting wins over, with barely a dud track. Those who think this is too mild, not edgy enough, are missing some of the darkness of the lyrics, that recall Lee Hazlewood and, especially on 'Dark Road', Johnny Cash.
From the opener 'Valentine', the lushness of the music evokes a strangely sedative and wistful mood, so disconnected from modern times that it feels oddly haunted. 'Sing me a lullaby cos I'm sleepy' he croons over the dark and breezy atmospherics that recall Lambchop's 'Nixon'. Similarly, 'Roll River Roll' and the title track are rich with imagery, with Hawley intoning the 'deep dark waters' to take him on his 'journey home'. This ancient river, under Lady's Bridge or its metaphorical equivalent, is repeatedly returned to as a central image, a source of release, a vision of peace and even cessation. If you allow the mood of this thematic and atmospheric premise to envelope you, it becomes so much more than just the pastiche it has been unfairly accused of. Hawley takes solace from solitude from this image, something this listener was able to do in his music.
It's not all dark and gloomy however, the faintly rockabilly 'Serious' and 'I'm Looking Forward To Find Me' are toe-tapping (rock 'n' roll) dancefloor numbers. But the highlight for me is the epic mood piece 'The Sea Calls' which drifts in a sea of ocean imagery. Both otherworldly and beautifully melodic, it recalls the floating grandeur of Tim Buckley's 'Buzzin' Fly'. Overall, the richness of the music, and the permanence of the songwriting make for a timeless classic - the first I have heard for some time.