Paul Heaton, Borderline, London


I suppose that somewhere in the chequered history of sports casual (did I miss, for example, a pair of Reebok Classics poking out from the papal robe?) a tracksuit top must have seemed more incongruous. But it's difficult to imagine. Paul Heaton has one on – resolutely zipped up to his chin despite the stickiness of a packed Borderline. Yet the voice that emerges from above it is about as far removed from commonplace as you're likely to get.

It would be neat, given Heaton's operations out of Hull, first with The Housemartins and then with The Beautiful South, to call this Northern soul; but let's cut to the chase. This is soul music in its purest sense – songs that issue from Heaton's core, from behind his eyes, from his gut.

And, admittedly, it's a bit of a surprise. His latest solo offering, Acid Country, while buoyant and shot through with Heaton's recurring themes of social injustice, wry patriotism, and claustrophobic coupledom, hardly grabs you by the scruff of the neck as an album. Yet here, the songs assume a startling immediacy: "This House", on the record a lilting lament to a faded relationship, here tangibly aches as Heaton implores with voice and outstretched arm; "Life of a Cat", a song to simplicity, manages to be warm yet utterly heartbreaking; and "Acid Country" has Heaton punching and snarling over its righteous refrain, "Let's fight a war on greed/ and not on poverty".

If all this sounds just a tad overwrought, it's good to note that Heaton (and his career has depended on it) is a man of contradictions. So for every ounce of certainty there's an equal dose of vulnerability; for every poetic proclamation there's a witty aside; and although he has his eye on the future, he's not afraid to dip into the past. Three Housemartins classics – including a glorious "Me and the Farmer" – thunder by, before Heaton and his band exit in stages to the country-stomp of "God Bless Texas".

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