The first massive smile spreads across your face like a sunrise precisely 21 seconds in to What Have We Become?'s first song, 'Moulding of a Fool'. It's the first time you hear Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott's voices sing together and despite everything else you're hearing - which is happily a pop-motown-handclap barnstormer of an opener - it's such an unabashed joy to hear those voices blend, the entrance price is justified right there and then.
Back when Heaton masterminded the bittersweet pop juggernaut of The Beautiful South, Abbott was his favourite muse, the second of the band's three female singers and the one whose voice best suited Heaton's sardonic soul. Hers was the voice on 'Rotterdam', 'Don't Marry Her', 'Perfect Ten' and 'Good As Gold (Stupid As Mud)', she had a perfect mix of weary melancholy and vulnerability that matched with Heaton and Dave Hemingway's (the-other-one, remember?) soul boy vocals. Her period with the band matched their commercial peak, from the release of their best of Carry On Up The Charts which seemed to be on everyone's mums stereo in the mid-Nineties, through Blue Is The Colour and Quench. When she left the band to look after her disabled son (and rumour has it because she got sick of the famously boozy band's hard drinking on the road) it coincided with an almost immediate commercial downturn. They replaced her with the singer in a Beautiful South tribute band, which says it all really. Eventually the band split, Heaton famously citing "musical similarities". Since then Abbot has concentrated on being a mum, while Heaton released low key, but well received solo albums. His recent pop-opera project The Eighth saw them re-united when he talked her into taking a part and fell in love with her voice all over again.
You can see why. Abbott and Heaton go together extraordinarily well, both in terms of their vocal blend and her innate knack for interpreting his work. Heaton makes no secret of the fact he wrote these songs with Abbott in mind and here she has inspired his best work since Quench - by no coincidence one of the last albums he made with her.
Musically we're in fairly family territory for anyone who has warmed to any of Heaton's work since The Housemartins. A decade ago that made the last throws of the Beautiful South seemed tired, but here, with Heaton now more of an elder statesman of British pop, cited as a major influence on the likes of Los Campesinos! the musical-comfort-zone approach works far better, not least because the pair sound like they're having such a whale of a time making it. These are joyful rock n'soul numbers that fair motor along, from the almost Morrissey-esq rockaboogie of 'The Right In Me' to the wink-wink tongue-rolling holiday adventure of 'Costa-Del-Sombre'. 'DIY' is vintage Heaton, everything that's great about his writing, it has a nostalgic twinkle, an acutely observed character and a whopping chorus. 'One Man's England' takes an aim at racist, parochial little Englanders and contains the stinger "The real terrorist ain't reading the Koran, he's sitting in ten Downing Street and he works for Uncle Sam" which is either the best or worst lyric Heaton has ever written, while 'What Have We Become' opens with "What have we become said a mother to her half ton thumb, chicken wings replace the thumb." References to eating, pubs and drinking abound as the tee-total-but-pub-owning Heaton once again displays his love for real, working English culture and the characters that people it.
That sunrise-smile that hits before the first half-minute mark isn't blighted by the slightest smudge of cloud right up to minute 45, this is one of our best writers and the soul and centre of why he's always mattered so much. Heartily recommended.
8Marc Burrows's Score