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Like a northern English Randy Newman, Paul Heaton has a gift for framing acidic lyrics in emollient musical settings. It has served him well, first in 1980s indie band The Housemartins, then as leader of soulful pop group The Beautiful South until 2007. Following a sputtering series of solo albums, he is now back in the charts with his former Beautiful South vocal foil, Jacqui Abbott.
They opened the show with “Wives 1, 2 & 3”, from their new album Wisdom, Laughter & Lines. The four-strong backing band, including Heaton’s co-songwriter Jonny Lexus on guitar, cranked out jaunty rockabilly as the two singers delivered blackly comic lyrics about a serial wife murderer. In a witty touch, Abbott had the last word as the surviving wife.
It is no surprise that Heaton’s songwriting has revived with the renewal of their partnership. The pair are well matched. Heaton was a fidgety presence on stage, doing camp dance moves and taking his glasses on and off between songs like a nervous comedian. A difficult past relationship with drink, documented tonight on the Beautiful South number, “Old Red Eyes Is Back”, has not harmed his voice, a sweet croon manoeuvred busily through songs as though in search of calm.
Standing to his left, Abbott sang in clear, certain tones. “Sundial in the Shade”, an indomitable big ballad about domestic violence, was both tribute and riposte to Nashville weepies such as Tammy Wynette and George Jones’s “If Loving You Starts Hurting Me”. “DIY” was a boogying Dolly Parton pastiche in which a younger woman makes off with a married man, “Jolene” with laughs.
Heaton’s bracing worldview and musical conservatism can cancel each other out. “Heatongrad”, provocatively placed near the conclusion of the set, called for regicide and the establishment of a socialist utopia. Queen Victoria, founder of the Royal Albert Hall, would not have been amused. But the song was greeted mildly, with the audience jiggling about non-committedly to its cheerful boom-chicka-boom beat.
At heart Heaton is a populist. The set reflected a desire to please, not stinting on old Housemartins and Beautiful South hits. The audience responded best to these nostalgic moments. But it was not allowed to settle into them, as shown in the encore when The Beautiful South’s “A Little Time” was imaginatively reworked from adult-oriented pop into experimental dub-reggae. The mix of charm and challenge was administered expertly.