Very hot on the heels of the release of their first album together, 2014's both critically and commercially successful (the latter reward being a long time missing in Paul Heaton's career since the salad days of The Beautiful South) What Have We Become, Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott return with twelve more songs detailing the same old kitchen sink dramas we've all come to expect from them. Not without its merit, though Wisdom, Laughter and Lines may be the same old faire Heaton has hashed and rehashed again and again over the past two and half decades, the album still arrives as a welcome return to some semblance of prior form; which is ultimately what any of his fans want anyway - so why not. Still, credit due for being able to produce album after album of the same old lamentations, advice and caustic wit, yet somehow able offer something just a little refreshing in each.
Wisdom, Laughter and Lines paints itself in a similar musical shade as 1996's Blue Is The Colour, with the majority of the tracks being very key driven, warm bass, light percussion - and not a lot of jangling guitar (save for the second to last track "Wives 1, 2 & 3" which sounds like it very well could have been a cast off from the Cross Eyed Rambler sessions). The immediate stand out track here, and a well chosen first single "The Austerity of Love", has an unavoidable pop hook sensibility, that teases at being the album's most likely track (if any) to catch fire with a crossover audience. It has a youthful flare to it, a bouncy reggae feel infused with a bubble gummy sing along chorus. Certainly it stands a fair chance with any teenage daughters who might hear it and wonder when their "mum" and dad started listening to "cool" music. Disappointment to follow when they find out it's not Christina Perri and Ed Sheeran.
The fourth track "Heatongrad", offers us a view into the songwriter's overtly political leanings, and while it comes off a little self-indulgent and a lot alienating, it's the first time the man's ever laid it out so bluntly with the starting lyrics: "Fuck the king, and fuck the queen with an AK-47 / Line 'em up against the wall, don't let them talk to Heaven" - you can just about taste the bile Heaton has for Britain's figureheads, but it's a song fused so strongly to his own personal ideology, that you can't help but wish he'd offered such a strong bark and bite from a more universal perspective... but wonder if he's making a bid for election in his future. Campaign posters and bumper stickers that bear the H E A T O N G R A D slogan are clearly envisioned.
"Horse & Groom", as well, stands out as a bit of fresh feel to old fruit. Sounding a lot like something Modern English might have recorded, wherein Heaton uses country western metaphoricals, but thankfully avoids the sound. In the later part of his career with The Beautiful South and in the earlier offerings of his strictly solo endeavors (Cross Eyed Rambler (2008) and Acid Country (2010)), he seemed hellbent on insisting on a country music identity that no one but himself had any interest in hearing. He split the difference on "Horse & Groom", however, and so succeeded in finding a balance that let him have his lyrically, while letting us have ours musically.
Probably the most endearing song on the album, next to the stand out single mentioned earlier, is the second to last track "No One Wants To Stay". Likely to become the encore closer for live performances from here on out, the song is a cutesy little keyboard number offering a suggestion as to how a family tree spreads its branches from its roots, and how ambition and desire for the unexplored are the sole reason any one of us got from here to there. Hilarious is the mock vaudeville expression in Heaton's vocals as he sings: "Look your family in the eye boys... none of them would rather be sat here instead of sitting there / and you wouldn't see their asses for the speed they'd leave your sight..."
For all that it is or isn't, Wisdom Laughter and Lines doesn't fail to offer everything we've come to know and love about the music of Paul Heaton... and whatever company he chooses to keep as he continues on as a brand separate from The Beautiful South, and further back, The Housemartins (though he's never again returned to Housemartins sounding since leaving it in 1987). In sum, whether you're a blindly faithful fan denying that Heaton & Abbott bear any resemblance to anything either have done before, or those of us recognizing the contrary, both sides can agree that Paul Heaton's caliber of wisdom and lines bear repeating well beyond when most others would have had us yawning at the punchlines.