Paul Heaton & Jaqcqui Abbott are by and large defined by their obsessive attention to craft, then Paul Heaton should be among our most celebrated. He has been one of the country’s more astute songwriters - composer of the most joyful melodies, the most barbed lyrics - for four full decades now. But where some artists, even venerable ones, can tend to coast somewhat in midlife, Heaton, along with his musical foil Jacqui Abbott, is just hitting his stride. The duo’s new album, ‘Crooked Calypso’, brims with his newly-discovered zest for life.
“I won’t lie to you, this album was good fun to write,” says the man who turned 55 last month. “The whole process of songwriting for me has become easier, more enjoyable. I used to go away to write songs, and put myself in a deliberate rut in pursuit of melancholy. I don’t do that anymore.”
This is not to suggest, he quickly points out, that he has gone all “happy clappy”, but simply that, after years of some inner turmoil and perhaps a little too much enthusiasm for the drink, Heaton has crested into midlife with a belated self-acceptance, and even a certain mellowing. It suits him.
“I’ve tried stopping drinking in the past, of course, but I’ve finally found something that really works for me,” he says. “I only drink when I’m writing now. Only then. What that means is that when I come back, I stop, and I’m full of beans for life again. And that, I can tell you, is a definite improvement, for all sorts of reasons.”
‘Crooked Calypso’ is 12 tracks long (the deluxe version has 16), and boasts all the hallmarks of Heaton’s inimitable songwriting: songs buoyant with melody, and redolent with snark, but also real emotion. First single ‘I Gotta Praise’, for example, finds him at his most unabashedly romantic, a secular Gospel pop song full of the joys of life. ‘The Lord Is A White Con’, meanwhile, which is set to a preposterously jaunty rhythm, considers religion - as wielded by Britain during the Commonwealth - as a cynical manifesto to mollify, and modify, the natives: “Fire and brimstone in their soul, and buckshot in their belt/The good book or the bullet/That’s the hand the white man dealt.”
‘Love Makes You Happy’ might throw deliberately arched eyebrows (“love makes you happy, apparently” he deadpans at one point), but it is nevertheless a sublime declaration of fierce emotion, Heaton in heart palpitations over one he holds dear; and ‘Market Street’ is a sprawling nine-minute domestic epic about the Manchester shopping mecca (“We travelled in from Wigan, and we journeyed in from Leigh/And we headed straight for Poundland, in our hands just 50p”).
And then there is ‘Blackwater Banks’, a most gorgeous waltz that celebrates Ireland and Irishness with a rarefied elegance that the Dubliners would be proud to call their own. Inspired by Jacqui’s distant Irish roots and a cycling trip Paul made through the Emerald Isle, it could be a new Irish national anthem.
“I suppose it’s been a good few years for me,” he says. “I’ve made three albums with Jacqui in the last four years, and they’ve been getting glowing reports, good radio play, and a suggestion that people are happy to see us again. That’s made me more confident, and I suppose you can see that in the writing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still grumpy, but I’m content in my grumpiness now. I’m no longer frothing at the mouth.”
Paul Heaton first found fame in the mid-1980s with The Housemartins, surely one of that decade’s more gleefully idiosyncratic acts. Who else, after all, dared mix Christian imagery with Marxist leanings, a dollop of humour and a side dish of gospel? By 1989, he was fronting the Beautiful South, and set about subverting the entire concept of the radio-friendly love song. Beautiful South’s canon was, and remains, full of lovely red roses that teetered on stalks of sharp thorns. ‘Song For Whoever’, which reached number two in 1989, was to all intents and purposes a classic ballad, but it was also one written from the point of view of a cynical songwriter who pursued love simply to write more songs about love; and it remains wryly amusing to hear ‘Don’t Marry Her’ still getting heavy rotation on Heart FM today when you know that the album version of the polite single edit features the line “sweaty bollocks” and the joyful chorus of: “Don’t marry her, fuck me”, sung by Jacqui Abbott, a former supermarket shelf stacker, in arguably the most sublime country voice this side of Nashville.
Beautiful South sold 15 million records before breaking up in 2007 due to “musical similarities”. Few of his peers could boast such sales. Heaton went solo, while Abbott devoted time to raising her autistic son. When he contacted her again in 2011 with a view to collaborating once more, Abbott was thrilled.
“Singing was something I was never going to do with my life,” she says. “I just sort of fell into it, an accident, the result of me being in the right place at the right time. But I’ve always loved singing Paul’s songs, and I love them even more now. I’m biased, of course, but he’s just becoming better and better. It’s an honour to sing alongside him.”
Paul and Jacqui have since released two acclaimed albums as a duo: ‘What Have We Become’ (’14) and ‘Wisdom, Laughter and Lines’ (’15), which both went top 5.
A slave to time-honoured tradition, Paul Heaton used to write his songs in a very particular fashion. He would decamp, alone, to Holland in the grip of winter where, in the driving rain and cold, he would find the ideal atmosphere in which to create the sort of songs that shone laughter in the dark and revelled in the kind of subject matter Mike Leigh might well have turned into films. Because he also loved pure pop melody, he would then decamp to Gran Canaria in pursuit of sun-kissed choruses.
But the newly happy Heaton has radically changed his songwriting methods now. Yes, he still writes the tunes in the Canaries, but he no longer goes to Holland in the winter in pursuit of morose lyrical inspiration. No, he goes to Holland in the spring and autumn instead, when it is comparatively milder. And he takes his wife for company.
“I think that’s all proof that I’m becoming more optimistic in my outlook,” he chuckles. “And a bit less critical.”