The Beautiful South

Welcome to the Beautiful South (Elektra/Go Disc 1989)

Would it that there were magic and chemistry strong enough to harness the unctuous synth shitfizz from the Rolling Stones 1986 album, Dirty Work, the birdbrained white hot irons in Teena Marie’s fire, and the dook-streaked candy entrapments of R Kelly, your cocktail still would not match the expectorant vileness, viscous indecency, and thatchy libido-bending potency of Welcome to the Beautiful South.

It’s that fantastic.

Paul Heaton had been the breakaway talent in England’s boy-soul act, The Housemartins (never you mind lil’ Norm “Fatboy Slim” Cook was be-cardiganned in those band pics as well). The Housemartins, a U.K. number one-reaching act, did precious little to disturb American waters, but for a par cult following. They were a handsome amalgam of early-60’s Motown soul, second wave ska attitudes, and vocalist Heaton’s throaty, Morrissey-like croon and sparky lyrics. When not affecting his American idols—Ron Isley in particular, Heaton showed teeth with topics both social and political. But like The Housemartins, he was soul-clean then.

Welcome to the Beautiful South is the post-Mouseketeer induction. Heaton emerges as if from a chain of emboldening divorces, eye-reddening rehabs, and pocket-thinning libel suits, with the cynical turtle shell of a filthy old man, and a mournful residue of the boyish wunderkind he’d been.

First up is the piano ballad, and debut single, “Song For Whoever” which so closely cleaves to Burt Bacharach’s signature piano balladry it’s almost parody. The tune is instantly pretty, with Heaton ceding first verses to co-vocalist and fellow ex-Housemartin, Dave Hemingway. Quickly the dainty piano lyricism and cloyingly sincere delivery style yield to a wincing tale of lovers who serve as situational kindling for the composer’s egotistical–not to mention profitable, songwriting. Much of the song is a laundry list of half-forgotten girlfriends, rattled off with nominal gratitude for the great songs they inspired.

It’s an inspired cruelty, revealing Heaton’s (along with BS co-songwriter, Dave Rotheray) witty distillation of his own past: that glittery charm school brand of soul music is all well and good, but sooner or later the class lets out into a real world.

If, a few songs later in the genuine, wistful Carole King-style torch song, “I’ll Sail This Ship Alone”, Heaton comes off as a little timeworn and jaded its probably because he is.

Fortunately the rest of the record, bustling with the gang’s queen-is-dead flippancy, finds plenty of time to be perfectly, smuttily enjoyable. A cover of Pebbles’ “Girlfriend” does in one brass-burnished tune what Simply Red, Paul Young, Rick Astley, and any other fade-cut pseudo-teddy soul nitwit couldn’t in a career of adult-friendly synth-schlock: inure schmaltz with that generational snottiness.

The songs rev in a Smiths/Housemartins-brand melodocism, with the smartly polished, “From Under the Covers”, and the catchy, if misanthropic, “Straight in at 37”–a kind of rave-up Guernica aimed at the artificial state of British pop, replete with Simon LeBon drunkenly tossing up in the potted plants.

“Love Is” revisits the smoky heart-stopper r&b of Madness’s “It Must Be Love” with self-deprecation worthy of a Tod Solondz movie. It is decadent, bejeweled with nasty details, and sickly triumphal, as the dickwad who once got turned down by a girl (“I remember your face/The dance was slow/”Easy” by the Commodores/And you said, no”) turns up to gloat over his newfound fame and fortune. On a horn shot and chugging blues guitar worthy of the Chit-lites, Heaton and Hemingway repeat, in a kind of victory mantra of revenge sex and self-adulation, “Don’t scream my name”, eventually devolving in a ridiculous Beatles coda of “She Loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…/ She loves me, yeah, yeah, yeah…/ I love me yeah, yeah, yeah…” Don’t get your fingers near their mouths.

Only the odd “I Love You (But You’re Boring)” remains. Contrary to the bent of its title, this is a real screwball, full of flitting sound effects, and an uncharacteristically naked Heaton singing non-sequiturs—to himself it seems, about another missed connection. Hemingway merely mouths the zinger title phrase, already bored himself, leaving Heaton and his 11th hour idiosyncrasies for a headstart at the pub.

Blur would come to use this scattershot sensibility to craft their own pop pastiche in years to follow, and Amy Winehouse would be born under its wretched, English soulsign: the glass half-empty, and the song over-abundantly painful.