Paul Heaton is known, fondly, as the ex front man of a brace of British bands in the 1980s and 1990s that could qualify as candidates for “national treasure” status. First with The Housemartins then later with The Beautiful South he disguised his sly, cynical, bitter, political and often extremely funny tales in radio-friendly, easy-listening musical settings. It also helped that he had a sweet blue-eyed-soul croon of a voice, enabling his pithy wit to slide down more smoothly.
Now he’s back with his first solo outing since 2008’s The Cross Eyed Rambler, fresh from his Pedals and Pumps bicycling/pub-visiting UK tour, and a stint deputising for Marc Riley on his BBC 6Music show.
Heaton’s was always an old head, even when it was on younger shoulders, and this album sees Heaton slipping into curmudgeonly middle age as if he were always meant to be there. The nostalgia, wistfulness and regret are almost tangible, from the curiously US-centric memories of the opener, remembering “the night that John F Kennedy died”, New York Yankees and Sugar Ray to Life Of A Cat’s “I wish” list. The ponderous, maudlin/romantic Young Man’s Game, its lyrics recalling Sam Cooke‘s Wonderful World in places, is also full of this sense of missed opportunities and times long passed.
If this all sounds a little depressing, the perkiness of many of the tunes serves as an antedote. Many have the whistle-along factor, but particularly enjoyable are the sarcastic Even A Palm Tree (a classic Heaton him/her argument dialogue in a song), Welcome To The South and House Party. This latter is probably the strongest track on the album, its chorus – “Ugly’s in the kitchen drinking / Beauty’s gone to bed / Clever’s in his room just thinking / You got little me instead” – cleverly capturing a certain kind of desultory party that most will recognise.
The musical mix is a judicious one, and appropriate both for the songs and for Heaton’s still-tuneful and surprisingly sweet vocal. The country tinge on the opening track, Young Man’s Game and House Party is occasionally joined by some unexpected synths, providing another element and some variety. On Welcome To The South and This House there are also echoes of old time music hall, which again seems appropriate for this old time, very British artist.
Heaton has a curious tendency to prolong some of his songs beyond what appears to be their natural length. The worst offender is Acid Country, but a similar thing happens on House Party. This not only gives the impression of two separate tracks clumsily joined together to make one, but often blurs the narrative and usually whip-smart lyricism to the point of unintelligibility. This is disappointing as Heaton’s story-spinning has always been one of the joys of his work.
The lyrical gems, the wit, the way with a tune. All these things that have made Heaton such a treasured artist in his previous incarnations are still there. They are just rather less frequent, harder to ferret out and interspersed with a quantity of fairly baffling padding. A part-frustrating, part-inspiring, slightly-disappointing overall piece of work.