Album: Paul Heaton, The 8th (Proper)

Mixed messages spoil Heaton's redemption songs

Engaged as they are in one of the more populist arts – it's right there in the job description, this requirement of popularity – some pop songwriters chafe at their lot and hanker after the kudos of more respected, large-scale work: a song-cycle, perhaps, or maybe even an opera. 

In Paul Heaton's case, this self-aware working-class Yorkshireman has tried to cauterise the bourgeois aspirations of writing an opera based around the seven deadly sins by setting it in resolutely grim, poverty-stricken territory. The spine of the work is provided by excerpts from a morality tale – vividly narrated by The Wire's Reg E Cathey – set in some unnamed American ghetto, around which are hung the songs named after the sins, performed in a range of styles by singers including King Creosote, Cherry Ghost, and Heaton's vocal partner in The Beautiful South, Jacqui Abbott. 

The key message is stated in the opening "Panther": "What separates the human race/It ain't digits, it ain't sums/It's capital's ability to point finger at the slums". The theme of police oppression is then established in "Pharaoh's Boot", where we meet the corrupt officer whose venalities blight lives throughout the piece; but it's the narrator's experience that gives the work its power, as he journeys from being a young murderer haunted by his victim, to an avenging benefactor seeking morsels of redemption. 

Sadly, the actual songs are less gripping, and in the case of the football-fan number "Pride", bafflingly incongruent with the ghetto morality play. Wayne Giddens' sweet tenor animates the tragedy of "Lust", and Kenny "King Creosote" Anderson brings his usual charm to the folksy "Gluttony" (although the conflation of Vietnam, Hiroshima and gluttony rather evades logic), and there are some beautiful moments of a cappella chorale in "Greed" and "Walk into the Light", but the shifting tone and texture of the songs works against the opera's focus. Ultimately, Heaton himself appears in "Gossip" to muse upon how the sins promote "that tempting pull to do no bleedin' good", a pull against which the narrator's tale strives to establish the possibility of virtue even in the most stained of consciences. 

Download: Strawberry-Type Birthmark; Lust; Greed