It’s difficult to know where to start with this album aside from just jumping in and experiencing it. While Standing at the Sky’s Edge is certainly not a departure for Richard Hawley, this seventh solo studio effort from him is blazingly, exceptionally impressive in almost every aspect. The textures, the production, the musicianship, the songwriting, the guitar work, and particularly the moods and feelings evoked are uniformly phenomenal. The individual songs follow the same trajectory that whole album does: they each start slowly and gently before building to a cathartic finish that disarms with intensity. This record sounds like an emotion-filled summer day spent with a loved one, becoming more overwhelming and more beautiful with each passing minute and finally culminating in an overflowing outpour of feelings and impulses.
Before we plunge in headfirst, a bit of background: Hawley, erstwhile Pulp and Longpigs member, general Britpop dabbler, enthusiastic collaborator to many, and stylish ‘50s throwback, really truly bloomed as a musician and songwriter when he went solo and in 2001 released a self-titled mini-LP. Since then he’s been steadily building on the success of that recording and the follow-up to it, Late Night Final. Hawley was already known for his skilful and emotive guitar work in the ‘90s, and the retro guitar rock that he writes as a solo artist only complements his playing more, as indeed it should. I don’t generally (generally!) consider myself a big fan of a lot of guitar show-offery, but when it’s this well-executed and contributes so much texture and atmosphere…nay, is the texture and atmosphere, the centre-stage guitar and frequent solos are a joy. Not to be a total curmudgeon (well, okay…) but I’m also not much of a love song person and the tunes showcased on Sky’s Edge are primarily love songs. I can forgive them, though, when they’re as dreamy and psychedelic as this, and particularly when they’re delivered with a touch of humour.
While in the past Hawley’s subject matter has dealt primarily on the city sights and sounds of his beloved Sheffield, just one look at the Sky’s Edge cover art shows that this is a different affair, not so much about life in Sheffield as much as life around it, despite the fact that it’s (presumably) named after the Sheffield neighbourhood Skye Edge. There’s a hint of the pastoral to the psychedelic sounds featured here, and the effect is simultaneously isolating and rousing, if not outright unifying. There’s also less of the mellow crooning and string-laden soaring pop arrangements that have become synonymous with his name. These sounds are replaced with denser, more melancholy songs that are still pop-oriented but slight skewed, bent with desire and urgency.
We start our plunge with “She Brings the Sunlight”, a gorgeous slow-burner that begins innocuously and gently but then disarms with a dark and dissonant string introduction. The psychedelic element is apparent straight away, as there’s a distinct distortion on Hawley’s rich voice and an undercurrent to the guitar chords that evokes both an organ and Eastern strings. There’s also an exotic, erotic undercurrent that’s further emphasised by the lyrics about the preamble to and aftermath of sex as well as a pervading, indefinable claustrophobia. For something touted as darker and more psychedelic than anything Hawley’s done before, it suits him remarkably well and feels much more like a different facet of his musical persona than any sort of calculated overreach.
The title track is up next, and it is equally bold and distinctive. In it, Hawley relates accounts of three characters and the crimes they commit in increasing desperation. The line “they were sliding down the razor’s edge and watched their lives slowly sinking away” unifies this motley crew of unlikely criminals; ordinary people whose circumstances, along with their government’s refusal to recognize and help them, renders their lives tragic and ultimately invisible. The Biblical names of all three characters – Joseph, Mary, and Jacob – suggest a timelessness to this government-prompted ennui and the people who are affected by it (and please see Larissa’s piece on Plan B’s “Ill Manors” for more information and opinion). This idea is accompanied by slowly building guitar that is fully unleashed for a powerful solo after the second verse. Like “She Brings the Sunlight”, this song is also coloured by a darkness, in this case a desolate hopelessness instead of passion and eroticism. The song doesn’t come across as hopeless, though, but as a personal, albeit fictionalized, take on the small scale effects of economic recession combined with a Tory government and a deeply entrenched class system.
“Time Will Bring You Winter” again includes some Eastern influences and a pronounced reverb on Hawley’s voice that is eerie and rich. The lyrics tumble over each other and pile up in echoing images of mysticism and pagan rituals of the changing seasons. The guitar works resoundingly well with the other instruments and effects on display here, creating an aural image of autumn in the two-minute instrumental section that closes the song. This flows into the immediately faster paced “Down in the Woods”, a paean to the beauty of nature that begins by disdainfully writing off cars and TV and those who revere them. There is something of the Dionysian bacchanalia in the words: “There must be a place for us/For you and I to be as one/Around your shoulders, in your hair/My eyes are blinded by solar flares/Won’t you follow me down, down into the woods/Won’t you follow me down, come back feeling good.” The music is hard and fast and again drenched in echo, definitely continuing in the sexual theme as begun by the “She Brings the Sunlight”, this time climaxing at the sight of a rainbow and loss of control and the euphoria of love.
The humour I mentioned before is part of the next song, “Seek It.” In the vein of Hawley’s work previous to this album, it’s a much gentler pop song than the preceding tunes, but it continues to deal with the earthiness of sex and attraction, and the line that I find funny is “I had a dream and you were in it/We were naked, can’t remember what happened next/It was weird.” Whether that line is meant humourously or not, the strange honest earnestness of it is somewhat surprising and totally amusing, and maybe not in a completely good way. Other than that, “Seek It” is perhaps one of the less interesting songs on Sky’s Edge even as it offers a soothing kind of musical palate cleanser for the rest of the album. It’s innocuous and pretty enough, and for this five minutes, that’s enough. “The Wood Collier’s Grave” is spare and haunting, the guitars faint while a ghostly presence seems to hang over it. At just over three minutes it’s by far the shortest track here as well, and the haunting presence of death aura is executed so well that you wish it could go on just a little longer. Hawley’s rich voice particularly suits this song’s hushed vibe, as the quieter his voice becomes the more its subtle nuances are audible.
We return to all-out rock on “Leave Your Body Behind You”, its title also indicating a return to the album’s loose theme of cathartic release. The music follows suits: the reverb here comes close to drowning out Hawley altogether, and that’s the point. The track is closed by increasingly frenzied guitar and atmospheric noise over a choir that repeats “leave your body behind you” and it’s so effective that you want to take that very advice. The sheer amount of noise produced and transmitted in the final minute and a half of this song is staggering, and staggeringly beautiful. In the world of this album, it’s euphoric love and being in the presence of nature that can transcend the human state and achieve new levels of consciousness. Overtly psychedelic but also beautiful and an unprecedented success from Hawley, who had seemingly found his groove in retro guitar pop but has now shown himself to far more versatile. Standing at the Sky’s Edge closes with “Before”, a kind of comedown from the bacchanal that was “Leave Your Body Behind You.” This tune forges a connection between the blazing psych-rock of songs like “She Brings the Sunlight” and the gentler pop of “Seek It”, with lovely gentle verses and a lengthy middle solo section that brings the harder rock sound into context on this song and on the album itself.
A meditation on the beauty and power of love and nature, this excursion into the sometimes dark and psychedelic has turned out to be an unqualified success for Hawley. While his guitar-playing and versatile quality of his voice suggested he’d be able to make a jump like this, it seemed he had found his songwriting and stylistic niche and that he’d stick to it. It suited him well, after all. But progress is progress, and people get bored. There are so many musical and stylistic experiments done by musicians and artists that fall completely flat, and I’m so happy to say that Hawley’s foray into psychedelia isn’t one of them. A testament to his skill and willingness to commit to an idea, Standing at the Sky’s Edge ranks among Richard Hawley’s best work.