Songs on the duo’s fifth album mix storytelling with the personal and the political to confirm their musical chemistry
Ever since his early days in the self-styled “fourth best band in Hull”, The Housemartins, Paul Heaton has been the master of wrapping up barbed lyrics inside some gorgeous melodies. He’s mastered the trick over his career, whether it be with The Beautiful South or, more recently, with his musical foil Jacqui Abbott, with whom N.K. Pop is his fifth album.
Heaton, now in his sixties, has reached the ‘respected elder statesman’ era of his career (Gareth Paisey of Los Campesinos! regularly cites The Beautiful South as his favourite band), but the barbs have become no blunter. While much of N.K. Pop is firmly in the tradition of radio-friendly pop, it’s the lyrics that give these songs their extra dimension.
Opening track The Good Times flirts with ska in its brass-filled chorus, but beneath the upbeat nature of the track is a sad tale of a pub landlord struggling to attract customers, while also grieving the loss of his wife from cancer. I Drove Her Away has a similar celebratory mood, beautifully played by Heaton & Abbott’s band, but it’s actually a tale of a relationship destroyed by toxic masculinity. It’s a trick that Heaton’s still an expert at, nearly 40 years after his debut.
Abbott proves why she’s such a good counterpoint to Heaton – her voice perfectly meshes with him, and duets like You’re Too Much For One (Not Enough For Two) demonstrate their musical chemistry perfectly. Who Built The Pyramids is another highlight for Abbot, a big duet about unlikely romances. Baby It’s Cold Inside may derive its title from the rather problematic Christmas song from the 1940s but is actually an incisive takedown of sexual predators and serial harassers.
Although he’s primarily a storyteller, Heaton does delve into more personal songs this time round, sometimes with devastating effects. Still is easily the highlight of the record, a beautiful ballad about miscarriages and still births. Lines like “still feel your heartbeat, the tiniest drop…your departure destroyed us but we’re so glad you could come” are stark, poignant and affecting.
There’s also a very enjoyably raucous tribute to Heaton’s late mother, My Mothers Womb, which has a callback to The Beautiful South’s Prettiest Eyes and pays tribute to Mrs H’s social conscience (“maybe it’s a family trait, or maybe just being scouse”) while also eschewing nationalism in this post-Brexit age – “fuck being British, fuck being English, I’m from my mother’s womb”).
That latter song reminds us that N.K. Pop wouldn’t be a Heaton/Abbott album without some politics – the final track His Master’s Game is a timely number about government playing divide and rule, while Sunny Side Up employs a rockabilly riff to remind us that “the only real democracy sees the Eton mob in jail”. There are songs on N.K. Pop that stand squarely alongside some of Heaton’s best – he may have celebrated his 60th birthday earlier this year, but that famous fire of his shows no sign of being extinguished.