Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Only in England

Paul Heaton is so English he makes English people nervous sometimes, so it figures that no one in America knows Blue Is the Colour exists. In England he's at least famous, renowned for launching Carry On Up the Charts: The Best of the Beautiful South, hyped by his handlers as "the third fastest-selling album of all time--beaten only by Michael Jackson's Thriller and Phil Collins' But Seriously," and certainly the only multimillion U.K. seller ever to stiff utterly in the States. Yet quite often pop aesthetes there don't get him. "It's a pub thing, a drink thing," I was told by a Kinks scholar who shuns both. "It's a slice of England that some English people find almost depressing," said a schoolteacher's son raised on a not dissimilar slab of shepherd's pie. With these gentlemen admiring Heaton's talent while directing their musical attentions elsewhere, who can expect Blur fans from Dubuque to broaden their horizons?

His father a professional footballer, his upbringing "mixed-up, jumbled half-working class half-middle class," Heaton was a footloose 22-year-old dropout with no musical history in 1984, when he formed the Housemartins in Hull, the drab nowhere that stands in for all of northern England in an old London proverb: "From Hull, Hell, and Halifax good Lord deliver us." But it took almost no time for the wicked "Happy Hour" to top the pops. Other hits having promptly followed, the Housemartins almost as promptly broke up, supposedly because the three years they'd given themselves were over. By then their m.o. was well understood: Heaton's exceptionally angelic Northern Soul tenor added acute poignancy to the band's perky jangle, offering no signal that the lyrics it conveyed so distinctly constituted some of the bitterest accounts of class warfare rock and roll has ever produced. How unforgivingly Heaton viewed both oppressors and "Sheep" (a title) who don't fight back is summed up in what was once his meanest line: "Don't shoot someone tomorrow that you can shoot today."

Since Heaton had never shot anyone himself--or even, like the Housemartins' first drummer, taken an ax to a business associate--this animosity was somewhat rhetorical. Indeed, it had become less pointed and more generally "satirical" by the Housemartins' second and final album. So it was no surprise that when this unfashionable northern lad convened the sarcastically named Beautiful South with second-drummer-turned-vocalist Dave Hemingway in 1989, Heaton made the familiar decision (cf. the Beat/General Public, Husker Du/Bob Mould) to turn his talents to the interpersonal. The surprise was that he didn't then cop out. The breathy debut single, "Song for Nobody," was a historic sendup of all pop love songs: "Oh Cathy, Oh Alison, Oh Phillipa [ed.: Phillipa?], Oh Sue/You made me so much money, I wrote this song for you." The bouncy celebration of Freudian repression that followed featured the woman's touch of third vocalist Briana Corrigan, who also got to top Hemingway on the band's first No. 1, the closest thing to a conventional hit Heaton's ever written: "The freedom that you wanted back/Is yours for good I hope you're glad," she trilled as she gave her man the kissoff. But the couplet that best epitomized Heaton's theory of intimacy didn't make the radio. It's my nomination for his meanest line, on what's designated the "album version" of the 1992 hit "We Are Each Other": "Closer than a sister to her baby brother/Closer than a cat to the child that she'll smother."

Heaton obviously isn't the first or last pop aesthete to tense dark lyrics against lite music. Not many, however, have set up such stark disparities. And not many have gone so literally pop with them. Statuswise, the band's U.K. fortunes dipped after Welcome to the Beautiful South, with Miaow their weakest album and Choke and 0898 Beautiful South stronger than reviewers caviled. But the hits kept coming, and in 1994, spurred by a soon-deleted rarities disc, the best-of's takeoff surpassed all reasonable commercial expectations. I don't want to make too much of Heaton's common touch. Yet from Randy Newman's liberal elitism to Stephin Merritt's and Momus's Nick Currie's takes on camp, most practitioners of this strategy like to pretend they're putting something over. So maybe Heaton's pop credibility is a reward for his sincere belief that the same people who suck up sweet music have an appetite for bitter sentiments. And maybe he seems so much deeper than Ben Folds or Baby Bird's Stephen Jones because he's never snide. Sarcastic, bloody well right. Fond of his own cleverness, he'll drink to that. But pissed off to the heart--and not devoid of hope, either. Like the whore on the current Blue Is the Colour, he wants us to "imagine a mirror/Bigger than the room it was placed in/Imagine a wish for a future that cannot hold my wish."

There's music in there somewhere too, of course. The three singers move the ball nicely, with Hemingway an even blokier angel and Corrigan or her successor Jacqueline Abbott keeping the sexual politics real, and there's no denying the tunesmanship of Beautiful South guitarist David Rotheray. But I'd only credit the Lennon-McCartney comparisons if the same guff hadn't been tossed at Housemartins guitarist Stan Cullimore a decade ago. Heaton's words definitely come first, and if that's not unfashionable enough for you, their meaning and context are never obscure. He occasionally gestures outward--catching an old couple suffocating each other on an Italian train, a young one beginning the same game in San Francisco (Abbott's advice: "Don't marry her, fuck me.") But the first pair are obviously English tourists, and Heaton's sunny Golden Gate is the California of dreams. Beyond occasional piss-takes on the biz and sallies against capitalism, his frame of reference is suburban life in its peculiarly repressive-depressing English variant, where one husband in two drinks as much as Heaton and the other is as boring as Phil Collins--and the loners are tedious souses who feel sorry for themselves in the bargain. Even in England I'm positive domestic life isn't as bad for people as this, but Heaton's detail is so vivid, his wit so cutting, and his dismay so passionate that he makes you angry it can come close. And when he breaks out of his theory of intimacy with a song like "The Prettiest Eyes," the warmest of several kind takes on old age, you believe his relief and treasure your own.

Blue Is the Colour has been available in England since late '96. In the U.S, it came out a full year later, on Ark 21, the band's third label in as many albums. But the lag doesn't matter--a hitmaker in his native land, he's as timeless as vintage Kinks or Colin MacInnes over here, and this may be his best album ever. Guitars vestigial, jokes a touch brittle sometimes but no less funny --"You don't back a horse called Striding Snail/You don't name your boat Titanic II"--it suggests an evolution toward the calling Heaton was born too late for: music hall. Like such stars of a century ago as Dan Leno and George Formby Sr., both northerners who won London over, he voices the sharp-witted resentments of working stiffs resigned to their lot. What distinguishes him from these now largely mythical performers, as well as their great rock inheritor Ray Davies, is his resistance to sentimentality, which he leaves almost entirely to the music--including such covers as the Isleys' "Caravan of Love," Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'," and (on Blue Is the Colour) Bobby Darin's "Artificial Flowers." The triumph in this vein is the greatest in a long line of drinking songs by the man who told Q: "I consider myself a workaholic, it's just that I like to have a drink while I'm working." "Liars Bar" comes with a video in which a disheveled Heaton leads a chorus of homeless alcoholics through a lurching soft shoe, and although he has an onstage reputation for standing there strumming in his styleless clothes, this is the performance of a born variety artist. "I'm a standup comedian," he sings, and it sounds like a job application.

Beyond a few broad tokens like Sir Harry Lauder, music hall never signified over here. But there weren't so many pop aesthetes back then either. This horse is beginning to amass a track record. Call him Pubcrawling Paul, and place a bet.

Village Voice, Mar. 31, 1998