The Cardiff-based artist reaches profound depths on the abstract yet earnest ‘Empty Room’ via Emmylou Harris and George Harrison.
With vulnerable candour set against a swooning Americana backdrop, ‘Empty Room’ closes the forthcoming H. Hawkline album ‘Milk for Flowers’ with devastating beauty. It is tender but bold in the face of death and the absence it leaves behind. Of all the tracks on the album, it apparently relates most directly to producer Cate le Bon’s description of it as Hawkline “fold[ing] into himself and extract[ing] from a terrible time an album so exquisitely raw, yet deftly graceful”. Even as it swims in grief-stricken disbelief, there is an acceptance of the necessity of change as a fundamental part of life.
We might best understand ‘Empty Room’ by situating it between two reference points. Hawkline has long acknowledged the influence of George Harrison on his work, and here we see an aspiration to the sonic scale and patience of ‘All Things Must Pass’, which similarly stretches country elements to the point of blissfulness. This is pushed on ‘Empty Room’ in particular by the contributions of Group Listening (Paul Jones and Stephen Black), whose restrained yet rich pairing of clarinet and piano carries the song along with the grace of clouds.
The sound further speaks of the gentler side to Emmylou Harris’ album ‘Pieces of the Sky’, similarly demonstrating the way lap steel guitar can carve canyons into the grooves of a record. This comparability runs deeper into the song’s philosophical argument. Hawkline’s lyrics recall not only the insatiable longing for a lost loved one expressed in ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ but also the impossibility of the central bargain to “walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham” in the hope of seeing them again. In our case, Hawkline pleads, addressing a memory as much as a person, “Don’t leave the room this way / stay inside / won’t that be nice?”. The question has all the hopeless optimism of a tragic Tennessee Williams character. Encoded within this evocation is an appreciation of the inevitability of death, and the stifling stubbornness of clinging to memories that will fade with equal inevitability.
We later feel an awareness of the sad ridiculousness of the command to “stay inside” and “keep a lock on the door” issued by the guardian of this memory, unwilling to move on. The last time I saw H. Hawkline – whose live sets have become especially rare in recent years – was at Green Man in 2021, where he played a cover of George Harrison’s ‘Behind That Locked Door’. As the mention of “a lock on the door” drifted into ‘Empty Room’, the significance of this particular choice came into sharp focus. Considering this track as a starting point, it is as if ‘Empty Room’ shows us the other side of the ‘locked door’ that Harrison describes in his song, famously addressed to the reclusive Bob Dylan of the late 60s.
‘Behind that Locked Door’ is a call to leave grief and brooding behind, to open oneself up to happiness once more: “Why are you still crying? Your pain is now through”. ‘Empty Room’ particularly mirrors the sentiment of its closing verse, in which Harrison turns the message to himself: “And if ever my love goes… Come and let out my heart… from behind that locked door”. In spite of himself, Hawkline, like Harrison, argues that one cannot simply cut oneself off from the world, that it is only human to “let out your heart” to the joys of life and the tribulations that come with it. The consideration of Harrison’s locked door earns him an appreciation of the stagnancy of the ‘closed room’, a symbol of the hoarding of life without an openness to death. It is this which consoles the bleak room from which one person has departed, leaving at least the space for the bereaved to move on.
Hawkline is a master of twisting his own phrases, warping meaning in fun house mirrors. One particularly poignant rearrangement in this piece revises a verse mentioned above, asking, through layers of double-meaning, “Who left the room this way? / It’s alright / We’ll see what’s on tonight”. He draws the bereaved discovering and rediscovering their loss through the change to a space, physical and spiritual. “Tonight”, wearily defeated, they sit down to watch the same television they did before, joined by one less person on the sofa. Within the reinstatement of this mundanity is the awareness that at some ‘tomorrow’ they will be able to come to terms with their loss. The piano, lap steel and clarinet combination guides us through a two-minute outro, stately and constant as the light of the television, abstracting this acceptance into a saintly musical epilogue.