It seems almost like forever since Paul Heaton troubled the world of music in one form or another, there was a time when he seemed like a constant presence in contemporary music. Even if he wasn’t at the forefront there were offerings from the ever lamented Housemartins and The Beautiful South who lets be fair walked away after crafting a distinguished back catalogue of bittersweet vignettes for the last gasp of the 20th Century.
Now however he returns on his own with his first solo effort, ‘The Cross Eyed Rambler’. There’s still a strong sense of his previous incarnations involved in this collection. A hint of harmonica is reminiscent of the early days (Mermaids and Slaves). There’s also more than a dab of caustic lyricism which was always Heaton’s stock in trade. However age does seem to have mellowed him in places and the darkness in his words isn’t as relentless as it was. Heaton might not be the dedicated drinker he once was but he can still wax lyrical about the old school romanticism of old fashioned drinking establishments (The Pub).
I’d love to say this album showed impeccable form because Heaton was always one of the UK’s better songwriters even if he didn’t always get the recognition he deserved. However if there is fault with this album it’s in the sense that despite removing the baggage of various bands he doesn’t seem to have moved forward enough to make this anything more than a mediocre release. The band arrangements can sometimes seem a bit unwieldy and cumbersome and you often want a little more space to hear his vocal (The Ring From Your Hand being a good example).
He does redeem himself in places however with songs like ‘Deckchair Collapsed’ and does what he does best as he details the collapse of a relationship in jaunty fashion fuelled on barrelling blues and a performance which shows the dark little undercurrents his voice can sometimes provide.
In conclusion this is Heaton and cohorts stepping up the musical tempo a touch, a less gentile procession of songs than we might be used to and one that lands with mixed results. There are moments in here that do shine and another album from this lineup might allow the dust to settle a little and make everyone more comfortable with their surroundings. For now however this is middling material, not an immediate purchase necessity but perhaps one for you to consider when you have bought the ‘must have’ material of the moment.