Vicar Street, Dublin ****
Over six gorgeously textured albums, Richard Hawley has been watching the world through a hazy post-war English drizzle, his Crombie collar turned up against the cold. It’s a long bus-ride away from the music he made with Pulp and Longpigs, but just when we think we’ve got him pigeonholed, he brings out his seventh album, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, filled with psychedelic swirls, headspinning guitars and quasi-mystical lyrics. If The Beatles had spiked Frank Ifield’s drink with acid, he might have made an album like this – but not as good, of course.
One of the songs, Don’t Stare at the Sun, was inspired by an afternoon spent in the park flying a kite with his young son. “What makes it interesting,” Hawley told the audience, “is that I was tripping my f**king head off at the time.”
Not that Hawley has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 1960s. Many of his songs already conjure up visions of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Scott Walker and Jimmy Webb, but some of the tracks on Standing at the Sky’s Edge are more redolent of early Pink Floyd; when he opened with the title track, all we needed were oil lights as a backdrop and Vicar Street could have been transformed into the UFO club circa 1966.
Hawley drew the bulk of his set from the new album, so those hoping for more nuggets from his earlier albums had to wait for their reward. Tonight the Streets Are Ours, from Lady’s Bridge, is raised aloft on a soaring orchestral flourish, while Hotel Room, from the Mercury-nominated Coles Corner, hangs neatly on a doo-wop walking riff. And Soldier On, from 2010’s Truelove’s Gutter, builds up to an epic march of drums and distorted guitars.
In fact, the new songs sit so comfortably with the old ones, they hardly seem that much of a departure. Probably the most radical difference is that there’s a lot more extended guitar noodling going on. Hawley’s obviously enjoying letting out the axe hero inside him, but sometimes you wish he’d just finish a solo and get on with it. However, the set’s closer, Down in the Woods, rewards our patience with a stunning climax, and the encore of Lady Solitude and The Ocean put the cap on a night of magic moments.