Fagan’s is a traditional Sheffield watering hole with a steady flow of regulars. The room may not be smoke-filled, but yellow nicotine stains remain on one punter lightly drumming his fingers aside a pint of the black stuff. Jovial landlord Tom racks me up a drink on the bar and announces: “Your guest has arrived.” At the door, Richard Hawley appears in dark glasses and a long drape jacket with velvet trim. His Chelsea-booted heel is going left to right as he stubs out a fag, black quiff dangling in front of his forehead. Settling his dog Freddie, Hawley shakes my hand firmly, while ordering a pint, granting me an immediate picture of the native surroundings that remain his muse.

For Truelove’s Gutter, the balladeer has once again summoned a romance that churns out of terraced chimneys like smoke on to sodium-lit puddles. He’s previously led us to the couples meeting spot Coles Corner (2005), which saw him nominated for a Mercury Music Prize, and across the River Don on to Lady’s Bridge (2007). A Best Male at the Brits and an Arena magazine Man of the Year followed on as his profile was raised, something that still causes much laughter with his wife: “She’d say ‘would man of year’ like to get us a pint of milk on his way home? The nominations and awards are nice on one level. I’m grateful but unfortunately it throws you into a world that I’m very wary of. I’m a musician, I write songs and I like to keep it on that level. Beyond that, things just get weird; nurses should get awards not dickhead songwriters.”

Two years ago the former guitarist with the Longpigs and Pulp dented the top 40 with Tonight the Streets Are Ours and top 10 albums chart with Lady’s Bridge. Featuring 1950s crooning rockabilly gems and swirling Walker-Brothers-meets-silver-suit-era-Beatles-pop, Hawley was soon tagged “Elvis of the North”. His congenial and steadfast Yorkshire way, sharp onstage wit and salt-of-the-earth spirit attracted the well-worn “national treasure” appraisal.

However, the tang of conventional success soon encouraged a step back: “It’s dangerously close to that Hello and OK bullshit for me.” Since then he’s put in cameo ­appearances with Arctic Monkeys and Elbow, but admits to considering early retirement when his father passed away during the recording of Lady’s Bridge. “A lot of that [pop influence] was a reaction to the horrific process that was going on in my life,” he explains. “I did nearly pack it in, but my dad said he would haunt me for the rest of my life. He said: ‘You’ve got to carry on son.’ He had nothing – no money, no future, no f**k all – but what he did have was time, and what he gave me was this deep love of music.”

Soldiering on and ghosts are undeniably themes that haunt this latest offering. Hawley was raised on Americana pop culture; his father traded licks with Eddie Cochran, John Lee Hooker and Big Bill Broonzy; his Uncle Frank turned down the Rolling Stones; and his mother sang with the Everly Brothers. “American music all came from slaves or farmers,” he says. “The songs were a way to let the spirit escape for a while, and that has strict and definite parallels with the way I was brought up.”

This all provided fervent influence for previous efforts, packed out with some captivating folklore, but Truelove’s Gutter is a different beast overall. It’s an epic pre-rock‘n’roll titan of an album, strewn with eerie wartime waltzes and barren music-hall melancholy, featuring an eccentric cast of instruments including the water phone, Cristal Baschet and glass harmonica. The moonlit mood of a sea and sky turning from black to purple ebbs and flows over the eight tracks. Undoubtedly it’s his most personal and character-driven release to date, and the song Remorse Code in particular knits together Hawley’s staple themes of off-course, living-dead characters and maritime transcendence.

“It’s about how some communities on the British Isles existed by luring ships with false lights and lived off the wreckage; but more specifically it’s also about a dear friend of mine whose relentless drug use has led him to wreck his own ship. I’m not finger-wagging; it even says in the lyrics ‘I was likewise’. On this record I’m really just trying to understand why someone would do that. It’s a dreadful situation. Being totally honest, I was once faced with losing my family and home because of addiction, so it became a simple choice, but it wasn’t an easy time.”

Undoubtedly, the 42-year-old father of three has, in the past, struggled to strike a balance. “I’m a restless f**ker and it’s caused me problems over the years,” he admits. “I lived through that self-destructive behaviour and a line had to be drawn. What happens when you cross that line by a long way? There’s nothing sadder than a 40-year-old guy coked off his face, gnashing his teeth in the corner of the bar. We live in a drinking culture and it becomes a crutch; a lot of us end up on the wrong end of addiction. We all start this journey wanting to be something, whether it’s an astronaut or climbing Mount Everest in our underpants. Sadly, we fall short of the mark and get distracted by the bright lights we find alluring.”

Despite a darker terrain, Truelove’s Gutter is not without the longing desire that filled his lonely protagonist wandering downtown city streets looking for love at Coles Corner. Hawley has suggested For Your Lover Give Some Time, written for his wife, is perhaps his most crafted song yet.

“Love doesn’t slip away, it’s about how you have to change and adapt because the first flush of passion will wear off, but it becomes steadier. You also learn to develop a sense of humour. You have to make sure when that bedroom door is closed everything is alright, because if it isn’t then nothing in your world is right. You shouldn’t have to have your buttons pushed in life: ‘Valentines Day – oh, better buy a card’. Randomness works better; it’s like a talismanic magic.”

What remains is Hawley’s unassuming home-grown Billy Fury-shaped star ­quality. His serious talent as a writer, producer, arranger and guitarist are intact, but what seals the deal is the Guinness-soaked vulnerable phrasing. Now with a more velvety rich and lilting tone than ever, it attempts to steal the show immediately with As The Dawn Breaks, where Hawley appears to be mourning his own passing: “That’s life – everything changes and everything will come to pass – and I do tap into that. That’s exactly what I like about folk music: you can pass centuries of time and many lives in a song.”

Despite being a concept album, ­Truelove’s Gutter has an almost punk defiance. “It’s a salmon swimming upstream,” admits Hawley, savouring his pint. “If we are living in a time when the album as a concept is dying, and if that ship is sinking, then I’m nailing my colours to the mast because I’m not going to betray what I believe in just to further my career. I believe totally in music. It’s not something to wash the pots to; it’s something to be absorbed in and absorb you.

Albums have been the soundtracks to our lives. I’ve not made a record for radio, I want it to have nothing to do with sound-bite culture. I think the industry is so arrogant it just assumes everyone has a computer. I’ll live or die by this record. It might well flop and it might be my lowest seller, but it’s my best. I know it is.”

The remembrance of community, industry and union is an atmosphere that continues to haunt Hawley and the landscape of Truelove’s Gutter. “Britain has its own unique story to tell,” he says. “It’s a deeply sad place where the ghosts of these past industries are everywhere. The last time I played Glasgow I went to the Transport Museum to see the shipbuilding; that broke my heart, coming from a long line of steelworkers. Just seeing how much things have changed and that sense of pride gone, wiped out.

“I sometimes get accused of being sentimental but it’s not that. It’s people’s lives. Generations invested everything into these industries and what were they traded for? A satellite dish and a f**king shell suit. Can you imagine a museum dedicated to a call centre? ‘Look son, this is where I plugged my modem in, this is where daddy sat and typed his emails, this is the water cooler where I met your mother.’”

Hawley’s laughter fills the room as his pint glass bangs on a wooden table. Lamenting, he grabs Freddie’s leash but not without a proposal of hope. “From speaking to young people now, it will come back. The passion is still alive in this city. There’s a latent power among the working class and it’s waiting to be exploited. I’m not talking internet bollocks. We’re a nation of builders and that’ll return one way or another when this time passes … because everything does.”

Truelove’s Gutter is released tomorrow. Richard Hawley plays the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow on October 12 and the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on October 13.