No one saw this coming. A couple of years ago, when Paul Heaton was still doing pushbike-powered tours of rural pubs and turning out gentle country & western albums, nobody would have guessed that the former Housemartins and Beautiful South leader would soon be turning his songwriting skills to a rock-soul opera that sounds like Leonard Bernstein meets Public Enemy.
Commissioned by the Manchester International Festival, co-written with theatre director Che Walker and featuring an array of collaborators including Cherry Ghost, King Creosote and the Beautiful South’s Dave Rotheray, The 8th is a concept piece based on the seven deadly sins.
The real star is the narrator, American actor Reg E Cathey (best known from The Wire), whose apocalyptic declamations recall Iceberg Slim and Gil Scott-Heron. The melodies, however, are pure Heaton, as are the topics: the nexus between capitalism and slavery, murder, homophobic policing, racism and incarceration. The heavily Ben E King-influenced “Envy” could easily be a Beautiful South tune, with that band’s Jacqui Abbott on vocals, but Heaton himself doesn’t show up till the end, unveiling the eighth deadly sin: gossip.