Posted by: Nick Walters | June 7, 2014

Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott: What Have We Become

Yes you should look pleased. It’s a fine album.

Since the Beautiful South split ‘due to musical similarities’, I have been meaning to catch up with the career of Paul Heaton, one of this country’s very best songwriters, but I never got round to his solo albums or even his opera on deadly sins ‘the 8th’. The Beautiful South’s last album, Superbi, is one of their best; and I always thought it was a shame they didn’t carry on, if not up the charts, at least hovering somewhere around its margins. Well, they sort of have, in the form of The South; but without principal songwriters Heaton and David Rotheray I’m not in that much of a hurry to check out their album Sweet Refrains.

And so we come to What Have We Become, which Heaton has recorded with former Beautiful South vocalist Jacqueline Abbott, who left the music industry to look after her son. The reunion of Heaton and Abbott has caused a frisson of nostalgic excitement, and to some What Have We Become is seen as a ‘new Beautiful South album’, which of course it is not as Heaton’s songwriting partner in TBS, David Rotheray, is not present. What this is is a new Paul Heaton solo album, though how it compares to his previous recordings I cannot yet say. It does, however, compare, and very favourably, to the best of The Beautiful South – but it is not a mere exercise in empty nostalgia; it is a work in its own right and should be judged as such.

That said, lead single D.I.Y. is when all is said and done prime mid-period South, very much in the style of Don’t Marry Her – fast and funny with ludicrously overcomplicated wordplay that somehow works (Heaton is a master at cramming as many words into a line as possible).

The excellent sleeve notes, a state of the nation address bemoaning our fragmented, commercialised society, show that Heaton remains as political as he ever was since the early days of The Housemartins and it is refreshing to know that some of the old guard are still writing this way whilst most are happy to trade off past glories (Weller, I’m looking at you). And, sleeve notes! Who does them these days? I wish more would if they’re of this quality:  ‘Women have cooked for thousands of years without saying a thing, men have cooked for ten years and they can’t shut up about it. Look at me, I’m a bloke and I actually know how to hold a frying pan without hitting it over the head of a woman.’ It’s worth buying this album for the sleeve notes alone.

As for the music, it’s at least as good as the best of the South, but with a harder, rockier edge. The title track and Some Dancing To Do are the immediate standouts, real belters as good as anything Heaton has ever written. Further listening reveals other gems like the Snowman, a wise and woozy ballad.  Lyrically, Heaton targets modern society on the title track and the extremely acid Advice To Daughters (one of four extra tracks on the special edition – well worth getting) and lays into the music industry, pulverising pretention, on the dry I Am Not A  Muse. It’s this quintessential handy Britishness and obstreperous, righteous outspokenness that makes Heaton so valuable as a songwriter.

At 50, Heaton’s voice is better than ever, more mature and growly but still able to belt out a tune. Jacqui Abbott’s warm tones are the perfect counterpart, their pairing makes this album a complete pleasure. Musical similarities may have brought The Beautiful South to a premature end, so let’s be thankful for the musical differences that brought these two together again.

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