Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott - What Have We Become
To get to the meat of this remarkable, unexpectedly challenging and rewarding record, you first have to traverse pages two and three of the inlay; ostensibly a lyric booklet but prefaced by a lengthy and compelling tract. If it wasn’t quite so reasoned and inarguable, you’d label it bile. But that’s for those who favour sound bites over debate, and Paul Heaton, often unfairly maligned as a sour old soul, has always been some distance removed from the character portrayed in lazier reporting. So: “What have we become? We’ve become a genetically modified version of ourselves. We’ve become parallel versions of ourselves, sending texts saying we love you to people we don’t.” That’s just for starters, and it continues at length, stopping off to unload at – amongst other things - false advertising, the media’s obsession with size, celebrity chefs (“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”), domestic abuse, the shallow devaluing of football and – the key to all of this – the gradual leaking away of human interaction, real and proper discourse, leaving us incapable of love.
When it became apparent that Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott were once more a going concern, anyone even vaguely familiar with the history (Abbott famously spotted by Heaton in the early 90s singing in the street, invited to replace original singer Brianna Corrigan and going in to help them to the peak of their commercial success, leaving in 2001 after four albums), might well have offered a knowing nod. Until she contributed to Heaton’s theatrical song cycle The 8th in 2011, the pair hadn’t spoken in a decade and Abbott had swapped pop stardom for family life. But it was Abbott’s voice rather than Heaton’s, curiously, that had ultimately come to define their former band. Heaton, pursuing various angles in a continuing post-Beautiful South career, tracked her down and thus began the awkward process of reconciliation. He wrote these songs for his voice and hers. The result? A tour of the largest venues he’s played since folding The Beautiful South, and a top three album. A cynic might lay charges of misty-eyed nostalgia, and run.
Only What Have We Become is having none of it. It’s a triumph, a breathless re-imagining of the mix-and-match pop of The Beautiful South at their very best that equals – on some levels, betters – that band at its peak. A peak which was, on reflection, irony fans, 1994’s Miaow, Abbott’s first album and the single-spewing vehicle (‘Good as Gold’, ‘One Last Love Song’, ‘Everybody’s Talking’), that paved the way later that year for the 2.5M-selling Carry on Up the Charts. Tellingly, What Have We Become packs serious choon-age, a feature often lacking on those later Beautiful South albums. Opener ‘Moulding of a Fool’ bemoans a culture where alcohol “…turns our dreams to plasticine / And decent folk to fools.” It’s a breathless, invigorating start, all Stax horns and pumping groove. “The revolution won’t be televised / And neither will your death” makes for a chorus unexpectedly, um, chipper. Time, it seems has not diminished Heaton’s skill for sitting bright-eyed wonder atop his very particular take on modern British mores, that frank pairing of kitchen sink dramatics and socio-political observation.
‘DIY’, the album’s breakneck trailer, is a forensic examination of the debris of a failed relationship, sung by Abbott and taking the “some bitch gone and stole my man” angle. Or so it at first seems… ‘One Man’s England’ deftly avoids preachy sentiment by way of wordplay (“One man’s last orders / Is another man’s last round bell”), unforgiving invective (“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”) and a monster hook. The title track (“We’re so busy lovin’ it, we’ve forgotten how to hate”), is a series of int. scenes in close-up; fast food and poverty, life’s losers spoon-fed (literally) a steady diet of nothing. Throughout, the three piece touring band are tremendous, playing across genres. The detours into country and folk will surprise no-one but it’s the bigger, brighter moments, typified by a guitar-led, fulsome pop, that are a welcome surprise and they give What Have We Become a breadth that it might otherwise have lacked.
On ‘When I Get Back to Blighty’, Heaton returns to the struggle that’s informed much of his work over the past three decades – his genuine love/hate relationship with the country of his birth. Smart enough never to mock or pity the characters in his songs, he reserves the depths of his bile for loftier targets – here, the royals and (oddly) Phil Collins. But, apart from a couple of insular ‘solo’ pieces, it’s a tale of two voices, whether it be the call and response duetting we came to know so well or a catalogue of soaring harmonies. At times, as they sing together, you sense them smiling – you can hear the glee. The album’s ‘worth the entry money alone’ moment comes with ‘When It Was Ours’, as tear-soaked a history as Heaton’s ever penned, and a warning to the curious. In a nutshell: don’t go back to the house you once shared with someone you once loved if you suspect the new owners have let it become a rundown shithole. That’s hardly the songwriting pitch of the century (“It was ours, when I was yours / Before this place went on all fours”), but Heaton and Abbott conjure a special kind of magic out of a distinctly humdrum flavour of heartbreak. It’s something of a masterpiece by any standards.
So, Heaton’s 51 now. Abbott’s 40. Perhaps re-energised by their new adventures, neither look it (nor sound it.) With Heaton, perhaps it’s all that cycling. For Abbott, the decision to ditch a life of endless bus journeys and all night drinking was clearly a smart one. For what perhaps began as little more than a labour of love, looks like it’s got legs. For those of us just thrilled to see them back, it’s a double joy. Partly, because it’s good just to hear that voice again - all ersatz American; warm, rangy. But, more so, the world with Paul Heaton railing against it seems somehow a better, more livable place. The best thing the old bastard’s done in a long, long time, What Have We Become is a stark reminder that age doesn’t wither us and the world, as ever, is what we make it.