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The Jam turned Setting Sons into a normal record, The Damned mocked the whole thing with a joke about “Tummy” (you had to be there), and concept albums went away. Then punk went away, bands like Rush and Marillion came back out, and it was possible again to make themed records as diverse as Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach or David Bowie’s Outside.
And now the concept album lumbers back in again from a highly unexpected quarter. Paul Heaton, maker of sharp pop in the 1980s and 90s with The Housemartins and later The Beautiful South, has had a bitty career of late. After The Beautiful South fizzled out a few years back, Heaton released a couple of solid but unspectacular solo albums (one, unhelpfully, as Biscuit Boy) which didn’t do that well – largely because he seemed reluctant to alter the melodic and lyrical template which he’d been using in his last two bands.
It’s a welcome surprise then that his latest effort is a massive step in a new direction, a short story of sorts (narrated by The Wire’s Reg E. Cathey and written by Ché Walker), set in the USA and themed loosely around the Seven Deadly Sins. The 8th uses funky beats, synth blasts, gospel motifs and guest appearances from Simon Aldred (Cherry Ghost), Steve Menzies and The Beautiful South’s Jacqui Abbot to create this fresh sound.
At times Heaton’s melodies are a bit familiar (and his opposition to words like “the” and “a” continues) and the story gets in the way of the music, but he can only be commended for moving away from his own overused pulse beat. Often, The 8th is hard-going, but at best it has some powerful moments, such as Heaton’s reggae-rock take on the 8th sin, GOSSIP. At absolute worst it’s a powerful, exciting experiment that should revitalise Heaton’s always eccentric muse.
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