Listen to this track by Sheffieldian musical journeyman, neo-balladeer, ex-Longpigs member, sought-after session guitarist (Nancy Sinatra, Elbow, All Saints, Robbie Williams, and many others), and latter-day Pulp member Richard Hawley. It’s “Coles Corner”, the title track from his acclaimed 2005 solo album of the same name, Coles Corner.
The record, his fourth as a solo artist, was nominated in 2006 for the coveted Mercury Prize, hooking into chamber pop, orchestral pop, and classic pop balladry. As you can tell, the word ‘pop’ plays in pretty solidly, although the sunshiny late-60s vibe hides some pretty stormy rainclouds.
This particular song evokes some of the singers Hawley admires from the past, and in their prime – Scott Walker, Charlie Rich, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, In the Wee Small Hours-era Frank Sinatra, and others. Yet at the same time, it’s Hawley’s economy and attention to detail as a songwriter which makes his work shine.
But, what about this song? What’s it really about?
The song was released as a single (one of six on the album) on Hallow’een 2005, with “I’m Absolutely Hank Marvin” as its B-side. The song is clearly a night song, with shadows of melancholy, world-weariness, and romantic spiritlessness playing in and out of the sumptuousness of the arrangement.
Coles Corner, the place evoked in the title of this song, is a real location. It’s in Sheffield, where lovers meet each other before a date. It is the former site of a department store, once owned by the Coles Brothers from 1905, and within sight of the Sheffield Cathedral. Needless to say, the place is romance-central.
So, why is this song so sad? Because, it’s also a song about waiting. It’s about that murmuring of doubt one feels when one is waiting, due to the sometimes rational, sometimes not, impression that whatever or whoever one is waiting for is not actually coming at all.
Therefore, it’s also about isolation, and about being disconnected. Is that prime grist for pop music? You bet it is! Everyone has found themselves waiting for something, worried that it might not come, or that it is foolish to even think that whatever it is being waited for is even a possibility. Everyone has felt that helpless feeling of wanting something that they feel is the key to their happiness (let’s say it’s true love), and having no control over that happiness. It’s practically the reason records like Hawley’s exist.
The results of the 2006 Mercury prize favoured the Arctic Monkeys over Hawley, much to even the Monkeys’ surprise. But he would establish himself as more than a sought-after sideman, and skillful guitarist. He would join the ranks of musicians in an impressive history of musicians that the City of Sheffield has produced, many of whom define musical eras internationally, and would do so on the back of songwriting like this, that hooks into a vital compartment of the human soul.
For more information on this fascinating and singularly talented songwriter, check out the Richard Hawley official site for histories, shows, and more.