Paul Heaton - The 8th
The 8th may very well be the first opera ever reviewed on the 405 (the search box is up there if you fancy proving me wrong). It's probably also the first album written "for", variously, "Donald Goines...Charles Bukowski...and the addicts, the pimps, the prostitutes, the gamblers and the lonely" of the world that we've ever wrote about and all. Just saying, it's a little out there. It's pretty out there for the man behind it, too.
Hull's favourite (adopted) son, Paul Heaton has been marching to the beat of his own drum for time immemorial. From socialist indie rockers The Housemartins and, later, the national treasure that was The Beautiful South, to his current venture as a solo artist, Heaton's career has seem him as something of a jack-of-all-trades, and a master of many. With The 8th he broadens his palette further: he's written an opera.
Keeping his Marxist ideals close at heart, this is not a narcissistic solo performance. Heaton sings only once in The 8th, unveiling the titular eighth sin before the final curtain. The seven other sins are covered by the innumerable talents of King Creosote, Beautiful South cohort Jacqui Abbott and, most memorably, up-and-comer Wayne Gidden, who possesses a sweet falsetto that has to be heard to be believed. Musically, the album lives up to its "soul opera" labelling, with strings that are Hayes-like and liberal use of the wah pedal. Everything's linked by chilling monologues provided by playwright Ché Walker, performed by The Wire's Reg E Carthey. Chilling, but, tangential, it seems, to the "narrative" being provided by Heaton's songs.
That's what makes or breaks this album: how well you can follow a narrative in musical form. In this case said narrative is less conventional even than, say, The Who's Tommy. And anyone who says they got the whole of that story without referring to the liner notes is a liar (or Pete Townsend). In a way, writing an easier-to-follow story - which we know Heaton can do - rather than dealing with more conceptual themes would have been nice. But of course, if he'd done that, it would have been boring, because we know he can do that.
Indeed, while it's nice to see Heaton venture into new subject matter, the best songs here tackle themes he is well versed in, most specifically, 'Lust' (featuring the aforementioned Wayne Gidden).
It's difficult to know what to make of The 8th. It might lose something from being a recording rather than a live performance, which it was originally written to be - it premiered as such at the Manchester International Festival and is being toured next month. It's well put-together, it's admirable in it's scope. But I'm not sure how much more you can take away from it.