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Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott - Manchester Calling (Album Review)

Thursday, 12 March 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Paul Husband

Bulging at the waistline with perfectly shaped poppy rock ‘n’ soul diamonds, ‘Manchester Calling’ is a rollicking ride that instantly shuttles listeners back into the Heatonverse. A more enlightened reality where the Beautiful South’s former leader is rightly regarded as one of the finest songwriters of all time, it’s a wondrous place you’ll never want to leave.

Since Paul Heaton re-teamed with his old Beautiful South bandmate Jacqui Abbott back in 2014, the pair have produced three cracking records that have retooled their old band’s signature spark with joyous, energised new sounds. Bringing the daily drama of regular folks to life via small scale movies full of melancholy, humour and painfully relatable, albeit unerringly comforting, observations, ‘Manchester Calling’ is both instantly recognisable and the duo’s most adventurous escapade to date.

Having described himself as ‘old school’, Heaton largely deferred control of this record’s musical landscape to long time collaborator Johnny Lexus and his musicians, gifting them the opportunity to blend spunky modern moves with the singer’s timeless sensibilities.

So where hi-octane rock ‘n’ rollers such as The Only Exercise I Get Is You, All Of My Friends and Big News In A Little World bring a bubbling cauldron of glam guitars, exuberant hooks and foot tapping gospel elan to the party, a peppering of loops, computerised strings and electronic samples are also sprinkled all over this riotous 16 track shindig.  

Yet those flavours almost feel quaint compared to MCR Calling, a wry art poem where distorted voices snarl out lines that chart Manchester’s evolution from a city full of gritty urban character to the airbrushed sterility of today. Menacingly played out over cinematic textures that imagine Danny Elfman scoring a gothic fairytale, it’s a stunning piece that climaxes with a line about footballer Gary Neville’s head ending up on a spike.

For all the new shapes ‘Manchester Calling’ is still unmistakably Heaton, offering the same combo of instant pop gratification and durable lyrical depth that makes his work built to last. Free of grandiosity and sagely matter of fact, stories full of pop culture references, caustic satire and empathy towards heroic losers come thick and fast in the form of Somebody’s Superhero, Fat Of The Land, If You Could See Your Faults and The Outskirts Of The Dancefloor.

His masterfully constructed wordplay, meanwhile, remains rich with literate linguistic flourishes and unique perspectives, flowing with an almost inevitable rhythmic grace that allows the songs equally infectious melodies to arrive with the immediate familiarity of old friends. And who else could rhyme “promise of wedlock” with “trapped in a permanent headlock?” to depict passive aggressive marital tomfoolery on So In Love, a playful bopper that starts in the present before dovetailing into a musical theatre romp full of ‘50s jazz embellishments?

That song is Heaton in a nutshell. As much as we should praise his collaborators, especially Abbott, who remains a perfect foil, brining buckets of sass, soul and pathos to his musings, the songsmith’s trademark characteristics are so strong that, whether incorporating Motown, country, dub or any style you care to name, the final product always sounds like something that could only exist in the magically entertaining realm that is the Heatonverse.

Paul Heaton And Jacqui Abbott Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu April 09 2020 - GALWAY LEISURELAND
Fri April 10 2020 - DUBLIN 3Arena
Sat April 11 2020 - BELFAST Ulster Hall Belfast
Sun April 12 2020 - KILLARNEY Gleneagle INEC Arena
Thu April 16 2020 - GLASGOW SEC Armadillo
Fri April 17 2020 - LEEDS first direct Arena
Sat April 18 2020 - NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE Utilita Arena
Sun April 19 2020 - DUNDEE Dundee Caird Hall
Tue April 21 2020 - HULL Bonus Arena, Hull
Wed April 22 2020 - HULL Bonus Arena, Hull
Fri April 24 2020 - BIRMINGHAM Arena Birmingham
Sat April 25 2020 - LIVERPOOL M&S Bank Arena Liverpool
Sun April 26 2020 - LEICESTER De Montfort Hall
Wed April 29 2020 - LONDON London Palladium
Thu April 30 2020 - LONDON London Palladium
Fri May 01 2020 - CARDIFF Motorpoint Arena Cardiff
Sat May 02 2020 - STOKE Victoria Hall
Thu June 18 2020 - STOCKPORT plaza
Sat June 20 2020 - BLACKBURN King Georges Hall
Sun June 21 2020 - CHESTERFIELD Winding Wheel
Fri June 26 2020 - BRISTOL Canons Marsh Amphitheatre
Sat July 04 2020 - MANCHESTER Castlefield Bowl

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