In case you’re wondering, The 8th is the soundtrack to a pop opera (or song cycle, or something) that Paul Heaton gamely put on at the Manchester International Festival last year. We say gamely because it can’t be easy for a long-established, mega-successful and hyper-traditional songwriter to stage a part-sung, part-spoken theatrical event about eight Biblical sins, counting one vice to which Heaton has newly assigned deadly status. (Spoiler: it’s gossip. Really? One of the eight worst things a human can do to another human is to gossip? We’re in Heaton’s world all right.)
Still, just because Heaton’s decision to stretch his artistic legs was game, difficult, or even brave, doesn’t mean it was right. The album is overlong, pointless and you dread going back for more. A listener shouldn’t resent an album for wasting hours of their life. That’s not a good sign.
The structure of the opera and album is a song about each of the eight deadly sins (the sin, in each case, is the title) interspersed with speaking or preaching, with an occasional touch of quasi-rapping, by Reg E. Cathey, Aiden Gillen’s assistant on The Wire. Cathey narrates the life story of his character, an ex-con who spent 25 years in prison for committing an actual deadly sin, i.e. shooting someone in the face. Then various singers, including Heaton (‘Gossip’) and Jacqui Abbott (‘Envy’) illustrate the sins. Some of the sin songs work horribly: ‘Gluttony’ opens with the sound of gastrointestinal upset and the line “fat was the ass that was sitting on the seat”, and I never got all the way through it. Some work fairly well, if briefly. There’s a recurrent three-part harmony (‘Greed’, ‘Walk Into the Light’) that’s quite lovely and Mike Greaves’ vocal on ‘Pride’ is convincingly dramatic without overdoing it; reminiscent of Robert Wyatt, incapable of overstatement.
The fatal, central, flaw is Cathey’s contributions. His monologues are unnecessarily overwritten, like a still more unreadable Bukowksi, and he over-eggs the lines to the point of campness. In this story of sin he may have been redeemed in the end but sadly by the time The 8th concludes this story of redemption has fallen on bored, apathetic, irritated ears.