We tried not to do any tricks,ï¿½ Alex Turner drawls into the mic, narrow-eyed as ever. ï¿½Thereï¿½s far too many people trying to do tricks on their albums these days.ï¿½ Richard Hawley nods a tiny flicker of agreement as the camera flashes back to him. Moments earlier, the band had begun their 2006 Mercury Prize acceptance speech with the line: ï¿½Somebody dial 999 ï¿½ Richard Hawleyï¿½s been robbedï¿½ï¿½
Hawleyï¿½s own late-favourite ï¿½Coles Cornerï¿½ had just been pipped to the prize by the Arcticsï¿½ debut, but in that moment a curious kinship between the two was drawn into focus. Named after a bulldozed meeting-point for lovers in central Sheffield, ï¿½Coles Cornerï¿½ was the lamp-lit counterpoint to the Arcticsï¿½ thrusting tales of life in the same city ï¿½ riven with everyday romance, drenched in simple, unadorned humanity.
ï¿½Coles Cornerï¿½ was not postmodern, ironic or clever-clever. It issued its simple truths with easy grace and seemed to bypass all notions of time.
With ï¿½Ladyï¿½s Bridgeï¿½, Hawley has made essentially the same album, only a little lusher and a lot more loveable. But you could forgive him for making it over again and again for the next 10 years, because his sound will always be in season. Never out of fashion because he was never in fashion, Hawleyï¿½s position thus far has been to bring back more gold from musicï¿½s forgotten hinterland: the 1950s. He has brought us a steady stream of smouldering waltzes, country jaunts, and punchy rockabilly to consistent, almost dutiful, acclaim. Now though, it seems his humility may have to move aside, for Hawley may be on the brink of exiting the bracket marked ï¿½interesting cult figureï¿½ and crash landing in the mainstream proper.
The son of a Gene Vincent obsessive who once played back-up for Eddie Cochran, by 16 Hawley was touring Germanyï¿½s spit-and-sawdust dives, playing maximum rhythmï¿½nï¿½blues with his uncle, before a stint as guitarist in Britpop nearly-men The Longpigs. Years of gigging and unsatisfying session work (including the guitar solo on All Saintsï¿½ version of ï¿½Under The Bridgeï¿½) had left him teetering on the edge of sanity, before Steel Cityï¿½s most famous stick insect threw him a lifeline, and he joined Pulp.
After they in-turn called it a day, he played Cocker a couple of his home-made demos, earning himself enough encouragement to ï¿½move a few feet to the rightï¿½ as he puts it, and for the first time, publicly open his throat in front of a microphone.
Go back and listen to The Longpigsï¿½ albums. Hear Crispin Huntï¿½s indie rasp ï¿½ the sound of a garage band singer made good: passable, but infinitely forgettable. Then slap on Hawleyï¿½s Johnny Cash-meets-Roy Orbison baritone ï¿½ a sound so magnetic, so soulfully masculine you can practically hear the echoing ï¿½swooshï¿½ of ladiesï¿½ underwear dropping to the ground whenever it drips from the speakers.
While we can only speculate about what he might have been had he not spent his young days standing at the back of band photos, what we have now is an artist whoï¿½s entering the second flush of life, making an album thatï¿½s about looking back as well as forward. Wistful and meditating on The Great Themes: an album concerned with love and solitude in equal measure.
Straddling this divide in the way that the real-life Ladyï¿½s Bridge joins the rich part of Sheffield to the cityï¿½s badlands, the album opens with ï¿½Valentineï¿½, his tale of watching a sleeping lover and wondering whether she still cares for him: the ultimate alone-together. The first of many orchestras soon appear, as we get an early idea of the naï¿½ve sweetness thatï¿½s at the core of the album.
ï¿½Roll River Rollï¿½ passes by as an anti-climactic second-fiddle, but then first single ï¿½Tonight The Streets Are Oursï¿½ pulls us back into sweetness. Some sort of lost Number One from 1959, itï¿½s completed with angelic barber-shop harmonies.
Even the albumï¿½s more forgettable moments like ï¿½Lady Solitudeï¿½ breeze by without snagging the albumï¿½s flow, but itï¿½s when heï¿½s at his most dark that Hawley really shimmers. On ï¿½Our Darknessï¿½ he croons like Johnny Cash reading the book of his own life, brooding about his ï¿½yearning for darknessï¿½, before climaxing with a brassy outro that rivals Oasisï¿½ ï¿½The Masterplanï¿½ for gilded pomp. From there, itï¿½s a languid crawl through rich, druggy, drowsy end-game ï¿½The Sun Refused To Shineï¿½, with its snaking guitar lines, while in the distance a lone kettle drum keeps a stately heartbeat and far-off trumpets squirm uneasily.
ï¿½Ladyï¿½s Bridgeï¿½ is an album that has moments that wonï¿½t be bettered this year or any other: a clutch of songs which will be hitting tastemakersï¿½ personal Top 10s for years to come. At worst, some might accuse it of being clever pastiche. But pastiche is hollow, whereas Hawleyï¿½s the real deal: his heart is all there. No matter how often you drink from these 12 songs, youï¿½ll never overdose on the aspartame of insincerity. Dialling 999 will not be necessary.