I think it was midway through the track “Ladder’s Bottom Rung” that the vision appeared through the mist. In my mind’s eye, I could clearly envisage a group of old men through the window of the “Eternal Sunset Retirement Home”. Yes, there they were. Esteemed wordsmiths Paul Heaton, Morrissey, Billy Bragg, and Eels’ E (token American). They were dressed in thick pullovers, milk bottle glasses, baggy moth-eaten grey pants, playing a game of snap. Four genius, grumpy pranksters bickering, back stabbin’ and trying to cheat. A lot. Call me crazy, but I know what I saw…
Thus Acid Country finds Paul Heaton in a similar quandry to his truculent card cheatin’ roommate Morrissey circa You Are the Quarry. A lauded lyricist long since drifted far from land, from record companies, marketing campaigns, radio buzz lists, and, yes, charts. Between his time with the Housemartins and the Beautiful South, Heaton weighed-in almost 30 UK Top 40 hits, but it’s been five years since he bobbed ‘n’ weaved with Britney and Eminem. However, cue that Rocky-style training montage, ‘cos like ol’ Mozzer, Heaton is back, Back, BACK! Risin’ up to the challenge of his rival… and like the bequiffed wonder, he’s ‘gone American’! Well, Americana.
DING! DING! Heaton yanks up his shorts and storms out, dukes aloft. Opener “The Old Radio” sounds like the Band and finds our narrator—where else?—propping up the bar. Nice to know all that training didn’t go to waste. A sweep of dustbowl country and “Liquid dreams” pining for yesterday, “From Pearl Harbour ships to Ginger Rogers’ hips / When Sugar Ray taught the KKK”. A roll call of Yankee dandies blurring to a standing ovation for baseball royalty Henry Aaron.
Yes, Heaton’s still a bard of the bar. The drunken dixie drawl of “House Party” spins a fiery tale of a street fightin’ man’s slow descent into alcoholism and the lonesome trinity of me, myself and I. “Ugly’s in the kitchen drinking / Beauty’s gone to bed / Clever’s in his room thinking”. It’s rousing Zimmerman harmonicas and the melody of Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman” waving a drained bottle in salute to the dearly departed, “His fighting days were over / All over his boxer’s nose”. As with his elegiac “Old Red Eyes Is Back”, Heaton is painting a beauty spot onto an ugly mug. The bell then rings out “Time gentleman, please” with “Cold One in the Fridge”. A Sunday morning coming down redemption song with the throb of a hungover Tom Waits. “I shall promise not to enjoy a dry Martini / Not submit to scruffy bar stools”. Despite its narrator’s protests, abstinence makes the heart grow fonder. Poor me, pour me another.
Despite the tongue lashing, Acid Country is deep dipped in nostalgia for kinder times. The rockabilly “Welcome to the South” is Heaton’s two-fingered salute to the soul-stealing golden lights of the big smoke, “Goodbye stony silence / Hello mealy mouth”. The tender music box lullaby “Life of a Cat” meanwhile laments how our new world of CCTV and CIA has taken “Simplicity by the throat”.
But it wouldn’t be an authentic drop of Heaton without his trademark trouble n’ strife duets, the best of which being “Even a Palm Tree”. Sparring against fiesty Ruth Skipper, it’s all piss ‘n’ vinegar bitch slaps set to Rilo Kiley-esque powerpop. “I can’t find you attractive unless I’ve had drugs”, he jabs. “You’re just cavemen in better cars and worse clothes”, she haymakers back. BOKKO! It’s proof that Heaton can still swing his pop paw when the urge takes him. Another duet, “This House”, with Hem’s Sally Ellyson, runs a gentler pace but don’t be fooled, it may superficially resemble The Good Life but it hides a knuckle duster behind its back. This is love with guillotines and electric chairs that “Needs two punch bags to park right next to bed”. It’s Tom & Jerry S&M partnerships. This love desires “More of you and less of me / As I walk out that door”. Aah, ain’t love grand?
There are a couple of Dylan-length epics too. The seven-minute waltz “Young Man’s Game” is Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” sung from a Stannah chair lift. Just a man and his will to survive. Pass the handkerchiefs, “It’s a long way from here to Lover’s Lane”. Pride in the shadow of the falling curtain. A wonderful life fading behind cataracts, “None of them so bleak as a feeling you’re the only one in a game of hide and seek”. Then there’s the ambitious eight-minute title track. It descends with “Dear Prudence” delicacy before twisting through a dub-stomping interval into a mini-Russian revolution finale. A trojan horse romantically eulogising sacred British institutions, “The Indian summer / Afghan coat”, before storming the palace and torching the flag. “Let aristocrats and ruling class die trying to cross their moat / Start a war on greed, not a war on poverty”. It’s a real flex of the muscles and proves age has not calmed its author’s furies, “This country more than ever needs its pills”.
Acid Country doesn’t completely deliver a knockout punch however. Despite going up the country, it’s still occasionally ‘just’ another—the 15th—Paul Heaton record. That great voice, the tic-toc slap duets, that acid wit and the pendulum sway from joy to sorrow. Even so, Acid Country stands unashamed beside Heaton’s finest work. As his soul brother discovered with You Are the Quarry, it may not contribute significantly to the legend, but surely reinforces how this Northern star is still match fit and intent on goin’ down fighting. Now if we could only get him to star in a gritty sitcom based in a retirement home, that would be something. Jeeves, get me Morrissey’s agent!!