Richard Hawley: Truelove's Gutter

In an interesting departure from the stylistic breadth documented on his Cole's Corner and Lady's Bridge albums, Richard Hawley opts for a more uniform and thematically-focused approach on his sixth studio album, Truelove's Gutter, with eight compositions dedicated to romantic balladry. But even though the album eschews raveups, it still features a generous range of dynamic contrast—the crescendo that explodes halfway through “Soldier On,” for instance, probably matches in volume the loudest rocker on the previous albums—and so would be wrongfully characterized as a snoozefest. And though lyrically the songs focus on damaged lives and fractured relationships, Truelove's Gutter is no Tonight's The Night or Berlin but rather a predictably lovely collection from Hawley that's ultimately more uplifting than downtrodden.

While some songs are intimate, others are epic. On the quieter front, “As the Dawn Breaks,” filled as it is with songbird references, can't help but call to mind standards such as “Skylark” and “A Nightingale Sang in Washington Square,” and Hawley's gentle croon isn't leagues removed from the velvety smoothness of Sinatra either. A classic, waltz-time “hurtin' song,” “Ashes on the Fire” finds Hawley wearily expressing heartache in the wake of romantic rejection, while the delicate arrangement for violin, cello, harpsichord, and acoustic guitar in “For Your Lover, Give Some Time” proves so entrancing one could overlook the song's wry and bittersweet lyrical content.

About half of the album's songs are robust by comparison. His voice caressed by a full-bodied orchestral arrangement and augmented by chiming guitar accompaniment, Hawley offers a gentlemanly plea for reconciliation during “Open Up the Door.” Likening a friend's crippling addiction to a self-inflicted shipwreck, “Remorse Code” is jauntier in spirit than one might expect for such dour subject matter. The first of two ten-minute songs, “Remorse Code” makes room for a glorious electric guitar solo, while the other, “Don't You Cry,” gains force slowly in its step-by-step climb towards an epic crescendo.

Mention must be made of the unusual instrumentation—megabass waterphone, theremin, ondes martinet, alpine concert zither, et al.—that enriches the material. More importantly, Hawley uses the instrumentation not for novelty effect but to enhance the songs, as happens, for example, when the shimmer of a glass harmonica complements his vocal on the wistful “As the Dawn Breaks” (inspired by Hawley moving from the house where his sons were born, the song concerns the final hours before the move); a musical saw solo also makes for a perfectly mournful complement to his agile vocal during the sparsely arranged “Don't Get Hung Up in Your Soul.”

Hewing to a romantic ballad mode recalls the kind of album trajectory made famous by Sinatra who regularly alternated uptempo albums such as Songs for Swingin' Lovers and Come Swing With Me with ballad collections like All Alone and In The Wee Small Hours. Perhaps years from now, we'll look back and see Truelove's Gutter as the first in a string of projects that alternated in the same way. Regardless of what the future brings, this openly emotional and sonically adventurous album nevertheless offers a compelling new chapter in Hawley's ongoing story.

October 2009