From the very earliest moments of his sixth studio album, it’s clear that Richard Hawley has adopted a rather different approach to his songwriting this time around. The initial ambient hum, which only steps aside for the first gentle plucks of acoustic guitar more than a minute into ‘As The Dawn Breaks’, is markedly different to anything we’ve come to expect from Sheffield’s beloved crooner. It forms a suitably cool introduction to what could be classed as his Tangled Up In Blue, his Sea Change, his Boatman’s Call.
Ok, it’s not a break-up album, but Truelove’s Gutter does bear many of the same hallmarks found on those three profoundly intimate works in its plaintive affirmations of love. A sense of late-night melancholic reflection is present throughout; here is a portrait of a man who has, indeed, “soldiered on for so long”, sitting alone with his guitar, thinking.
However, whether Hawley quite succeeds in that most difficult of tasks – namely, expressing feelings and examining situations that are unique to him, but in such a way that they strike a chord with anyone who takes the time to listen, thereby transforming the personal into the universal – is another matter.
This is an album has clearly been lovingly recorded, bearing a beautifully nuanced texture of wistful echoes and the unusual sounds of such esoteric instruments as the megabass waterphone and the crystal baschet. Gone are the rockabilly jaunts of the likes of ‘Serious’ from Hawley’s previous album, or the kind of soaring, swelling finale that he rendered so perfectly in ‘The Ocean’ on Cole’s Corner. Instead, the range of musical styles is much tighter, while its pace and mood are also more consistently measured. The quietest moments, particularly on the blissfully minimalist ‘Don’t Get Hung Up On Your Soul’, are invariably the best.
Taking his new songs individually, it is rewarding to hear Hawley painting his world of slate roofs and washing lines in deeper, more expansive and more contemplative forms. But in running at over 50 minutes long – despite being made up of just eight tracks, due largely to ‘Don’t Cry’ and ‘Remorse Code’ both clocking in around the ten-minute mark – for all there is to admire in Truelove’s Gutter it certainly runs the risk of testing the listener’s patience.
This isn’t helped by the fact that, while Hawley’s voice is as rich as ever, the melodies, rhythms and pauses of his vocals sometimes feel too familiar. At times, he seems to settle into the kinds of lyrical patterns used in older songs a little too comfortably, with the end result that one or two tunes are somewhat predictable, particularly in the case in ‘Open Up Your Door’.
By narrowing his variation in tone and mood while simultaneously increasing the length of his songs, unfortunately it has to be said that Hawley has produced an album which when listened to in its entirety tends to drift, rather than challenge or engage. It’s a pity, because it does contain some of his most sensitive work.