On his last album, Richard Hawley was in the gutter. Now he’s gone to the heavens. With one hell of a bang. Standing at the Sky’s Edge sees Hawley dabbling in what can only be described as space rock. Backed by the same band who saw him through his last few records, Sky’s Edge fulfils similar needs to 2010′s Truelove’s Gutter, save for the fact that where Gutter stretched out, Sky’s Edge freaks out. Hawley’s lugubrious baritone, thankfully, remains the same.
Sky’s Edge puts its best foot forward with ‘She Brings the Sunlight’. Strident, effortless, and skull-crushingly loud, it introduces Richard Hawley’s new modus operandi perfectly – the man has finally entered the ’60s. Hinging on four chords, which sound like they change at a rate of one per minute, there are Indian strings and drones which only let up for a split-second to emphasise the most ferocious guitar solo – the kind that could bring Tommy Vance back from the dead – that Hawley has ever performed; its laconic verses giving way to a massive, massive chorus. If ‘Sunlight’ lasted the entire album, it would still be best-of-year material. In short, it’s exactly the sort of song Jason Pierce doesn’t (can’t) write anymore, and it’s a damn sight better than anything that made his latest opus.
Anything after such a glorious opening track would have to be a disappointment, and that’s sort of true; nothing else on Sky’s Edge hits the heights of its opener. The rest of the record delivers a more measured approach to Hawley’s sound – it’s all recognisably his music, but with a little less subtlety (or a few more harsheties), and a lot more reverb than normal. The title track is a slow-building murder ballad, single ‘Leave Your Body Behind You’ swings out of the speakers with style, while gargantuan closing track ‘Before’ would have fitted perfectly on Truelove’s Gutter. The main exception is ‘Down in the Woods’, easily the most uptempo – no, the straight-up fastest - thing Hawley’s ever penned. A Bo Diddley shit-kicker which features some straight-up bluesman sex-talk (“Won’t you follow me down, down into the woods… come back feelin’ good!”), it’s a departure that sounds completely natural, even for a man whose best songs normally run at a third of this pace. Hell, his enthusiasm even gets the better of him towards the song’s end – on no song before has Richard Hawley ever felt compelled to scream “Yeah!” and, coming halfway through his most full-on album to date, it’s a delight.
It’s an easy connection to make, but there’s no doubting a wry Alex Turner influence on some of the lyrics here, especially ‘Seek It’, which brings a mid-album mood shift after ‘Woods’. Its sassy non-sequitur of an opening line (“We got naked, can’t remember what happened next – it was weird”), and references to getting cosy “on vandalised bus seats” are definitely Arctic-sized, but its acoustic drift, too, seems to pay homage to Turner’s underrated soundtrack to Richard Ayoade’s film Submarine. Even on a song as grounded as ‘Tonight These Streets Are Ours’, Hawley previously felt the need to wax philosophical; on Standing at the Sky’s Edge, he’s calling it like he sees it. And with this tweaked (if not entirely new) approach to his music, Richard Hawley may have just made the best record of his storied career.
Oh, and just when you thought that Hawley has gone as far out as he can go – a celestially heavy rock sound, a psychedelic record sleeve with (for the first time) no trace of the man himself – you realise that he has been in Sheffield all along. Turns out there’s an area of Hawley’s home town called Skye Edge, just like Truelove’s Gutter, Lady’s Bridge and Coles Corner. You can take the man out of Yorkshire…