I’ve been a massive admirer of Paul Heaton’s music for many years, a love affair that started in 1989 when The Beautiful South released their début album and, from that, I went backward to the excellent Housemartins and followed his career ever since. Although I love the vast majority of The Beautiful South’s output, the Jacqui Abbott era has always been my favourite. Not just because of the massive “Blue Is The Colour” with the sleepy sing-along “Rotterdam” and the cheeky “Don’t Marry Her”, but follow-ups “Quench” and, especially, the massively underrated “Painting It Red” made for a superb run of albums, each featuring some of Paul Heaton’s finest songs; they were the collective sound of a band that had hit their creative peak. Their material before (especially) and after was still a little bit special, but Jacqui’s soulful, emotive vocals added something that Briana Corrigan (always a little too twee for my liking) and Alison Wheeler (not enough character after someone like Jacqui) just didn’t give to The Beautiful South. After Paul decided that he’d had enough of being part of the band (citing “musical similarities”) and wanted to spread his solo wings with generally good, but still mixed results, this re-pairing with Ms. Abbott, who left music to look after her autistic son, is like a Beautiful South fan’s wet dream. Of course, that’s if this album is any good.
So, is it? Oh my word, yes. Better than any fan could have hoped, dreamed or imagined from such a reunion project. If anything, the John Owen Williams-produced “What We Have Become” is, without hyperbole, the best album that Heaton has ever been involved with and, given his back catalogue, I’m well aware of what a bold claim that is. Lyrically, it pulls absolutely no punches whatsoever, the music (much co-written by guitarist Johnny Lexus) is irresistible and is freed from a particular “sound” that a Beautiful South album would have had to adhere to, Jacqui’s vocals are as expressive and full of character as ever and at a huge sixteen tracks on the deluxe edition, there’s a massive amount of music to get your teeth into – all of it rather excellent. I absolutely love just how uncompromising Heaton’s lyrics are right from the word go. “Moulding Of A Fool”, the album opener, features Paul at his cynical best, commenting on the homogenised society and poor decisions people make which mould the mainstream into fools – all to a rather jaunty, catchy musical backdrop, naturally. The upbeat, near-country shuffle about losing your man to another woman, “DIY”, sung knowingly by Jacqui, is the kind of song that would have been a massive hit back during the era of when The Beautiful South bothered the UK singles chart and it’s such a likeable song that it may just be a big hit in 2014.
There is a dramatic, powerful Latin flavour to “Some Dancing To Do”, another post-breakup song which showcases the piano of Squeeze keyboard maestro, Stephen Large and sees Jacqui pouting, “I want to be a beautiful mermaid, not just some half piece of fish”; it’s a genuine moment of greatness, especially the boozy waltz-time breakdown at the end. “One Man’s England” is Paul Heaton at his controversial best, tackling racism, nationalism, hypocrisy and bigotry in general. It’s difficult to see him getting some of the lyrics (as good and as true as they are) past the rest of the democratic unit that was The Beautiful South, for fear of alienating some of their more moderate fans. This is, however, one of the benefits of going solo, so Paul can deliver prose such as “They say Jamaicans are laid back and lazy/West Indies is full of damn crazies/But Usain laid back is quicker on tracks/That white man in latest Mercedes” and “The real criminal ain’t living in a run down council flat/He’s residing on a beach somewhere, Panama cigar and hat/The real terrorist ain’t sporting a beard or reading the Quran/He’s sitting in 10 Downing Street and he works for Uncle Sam”. It’s a fantastic song and it doesn’t appear that age has mellowed the ex-Housemartin at all, thankfully.
The title track, “What Have We Become” mourns the super-sized, consumerist society of contemporary Britain and it’s a suitably larger-than-life arrangement for this composition, with a fine string section and a gently swelling chord sequence, slightly reminiscent of Buddy Holly’s “Raining In My Heart”. Again, it’s a slice of sheer brilliance from Paul and Jacqui (which would have been the showpiece of any Beautiful South album) and it builds up momentum wonderfully to a full, satisfying conclusion. “The Snowman” is a particular triumph because similar songs that Paul has written have sometimes been a little mawkish, a bit too saccharin, but this particular acoustic-guitar led beauty feels heartfelt and genuine. “Costa Del Sombre”, on the other hand, is magnificent fun with a high-tempo Mediterranean musical theme, telling the tale of a woman meeting a local man whilst on holiday, bringing a little spark into a world-weary life. The lyrics and tone of the song are playful and slightly tongue in cheek, but there’s a underlying pathos that makes it such an endearing song. There is a bit of a Housemartins feel to “The Right In Me”, a sublimely-catchy composition about the internal, eternal battle of knowing what the right thing to do is, but emotions getting the better of you and doing entirely the wrong thing. I think it’s a theme that most people can relate to, but few (if any) have put it to such memorable, hook-laden music.
Perhaps the very best song on “What Have We Become” (although there is some very stiff competition) is the sensationally sentimental “When It Was Ours”, a piece of music that has the power to make my eyes mist over. It revolves around the theme of lost love and never being able to return to the places where you shared your greatest memories, without a feeling of emptiness. The lyrics are spot on, powerful, descriptive and emotive without being at all sugary. Heaton then goes on to dispel myths about himself and rejects his hero status on the pleasingly understated “I Am Not A Muse” which boasts some nice brushwork by drummer Pete Marshall whereas “Stupid Tears” features a raw, loud guitar sound which gives the jagged lyrics the anger they deserve, along with a gritty guitar solo that hits the mark. The epic “When I Get Back To Blighty” is another stroke of Heaton chip-on-his-shoulder lyrical genius which ends with the conclusion that Phil Collins must die. A bit harsh, maybe. The rather lovely “If He Don’t” is the closest thing resembling a love song on offer here, but nothing is ever straight forward when it comes to the Hull songsmith and there are a few wry smiles on the way.
“My Own Mother’s Son”, a simple tune with a spring in its step, appears to be autobiographical with Paul describing his journey through life and labelling himself as his “own worst enemy”. It’s a rather likeable track and gives you a glimpse into his self-image. “Advice To Daughters” can only be described as a cynical diatribe by a malcontent, who has every reason to be discontented with the world his children are inheriting, together with the low standards of entertainment, the homogenised, drab lives people live and the pitiful expectations of this generation. In the briefly up-tempo chorus he gives the sage advice, “Don’t buy a 50p telescope, you’ll only see 50p stars, my girl”. Quite. A bluesy guitar lick introduces “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, the last track on the album, which sounds like an off-kilter version of “Blue Suede Shoes” and sees Paul doing a bit of Elvis impersonation as he lists the woes of our crumbling society. It’s a darkly humorous way to end a truly excellent album, an album that makes you want to re-visit it as soon as you’ve heard it. Quite a feat for a collection of songs that just tops the hour mark.
I’ll get to the point. There isn’t anything remotely resembling a bad song on this album, quite the opposite, in fact, and this is even the case for the expanded deluxe version. Nearly every album that Paul Heaton has been the driving force of has had at least one track on it that has stopped it from being perfect, but the quality control on “What Have We Become” is impeccable; it is an album without excess, without flab and without self-indulgence. The music is as strong as the ridiculously good lyrics, Jacqui Abbott gives wonderful vocal performances, adding not only her talent, but also a smidgen of nostalgia into the mix and the band are tight, enthusiastic and play with edge, flair and passion. In fact, edge is an important point, that’s the difference between this album and the majority of The Beautiful South’s work. Their unique selling point was the sweetness of Rotheray’s vocals and the pretty compositions juxtaposed against Heaton’s acerbic viewpoint and wry observations. “What Have We Become” sounds sharper, angrier and more alive than Paul and Jacqui’s old group would have ever allowed them to be and that’s a huge plus for this uncompromisingly brilliant piece of work. This album is the sound of Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott at the very top of their game, better than ever before and I hope there are further albums from them to come. Outstanding.
“What Have We Become”, by Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott is out now on Virgin EMI Records.
Andy Sweeney, 27th May, 2014.