Review Summary: The Beautiful South’s penultimate album sees them finally running out of steam, sacrificing some of their depth for shallow, whistle-while-you-work tunes
Sometimes, for a group firmly established in the music industry, it’s hard to know when to stop. Several greatest hits compilations are usually good indicators, as are solo efforts and repeated line-up changes. But surely, the bands’ ears are the greatest judges. Get in the studio, work on some demos, and see how it goes. Inspiration? Go for it. New edge? Great. Recycled ideas, same old routines, rush it out? Oh no no no. That’s no good at all.
is a poor, sickly little thing, a runt-of-the-litter album. It’s a headlong freefall into mediocrity, the band relying on torrential peltings of lyrics that all struggle to fit onto the tracks in time. Musically, it’s kept to the same guitar/bass/drums/piano setup, all mostly brisk, chirpy, shallow, and instantly forgettable. Some tracks even have hints of that accursed musical style, country-pop. Strictly speaking, the country influence is kept vaguely on the sidelines, except on tracks like the opener ’Pretty’
, where the vocals are a wretched impression of Kentucky’s finest. ’Sailing Solo’
is dreary, plodding, boring and forced, with clever, clever lyrics that you’ll never be bothered listening to properly because the music is so infuriatingly deflated. When the music does go bouncing off into foot-tapping territory, it succumbs to over-cheesiness, like on ’Let Go With The Flow’
, which sounds like a 50s b-side, the kind of tune the postman whistles when doing his rounds.
Lyrically, it’s all too much. Paul Heaton’s kitchen-sink dramas have been treated better than this - oh sure, he’s hardly ever been concise, but on songs like ’101% Man’
and ’Spit It All Out’
, you’re bombarded with words and rhymes galore; his lips spattering out syllables faster than you can make sense of them, and he’s not even rapping. It’s a case of trying too hard; having too many clever phrases, metaphors and political/cultural statements to make. You really wish there was a little more space in the thing, both musically and lyrically.
Even those trips into textbook Beautiful South melancholia are a bit of a letdown. ’The Gates’
has some great lyrics along the usual lines (alcoholics, vanity, long-suffering women) but, frankly, I feel Paul Heaton was rather irresponsible to allow a drunk country and western singer into the studio to contribute vocals. It‘s not quite as bad as the dead-in-the-water ’The Last Waltz‘
though, a mess of ugly warped guitar riffs, lost melodies and pointless piano; a depressing song that you might expect to hear, appropriately, as the last song of the night in some dive of a jazz bar, but it doesn’t fit this album of unnaturally upbeat songs. The bittersweet element of Beautiful South albums is missing on Gaze
and it’s a heavy loss.
It’s not all bad. ’Get Here’
is deliciously melancholic, the younger brother of ‘Especially For You’
, new vocalist Alison Wheeler competently filling the void left by Jacqui Abbott. It succeeds where other downbeat songs on the album fail by being spacious, reflective, and having just the right amount of sarcasm and introspection in its lyrics, as well as a dash of humour:
“Love will make you blind to the truth
Romantic novels all tell
So I spent a little time romancing by myself
But that turned me blind as well“
‘Life Vs. The Lifeless'
is a classic Beautiful South track and the best on here. Superb lyrics, flexible rhythms, it’s infectious, upbeat and harks back to the days of Choke
. ’Just A Few Things That I Ain’t’
is also worth mentioning, for its catchy piano rattlings and hand-claps, and Paul’s warts-and-all self-assessment:
“I’ve been scruffbag, dirtbag, always someone’s binbag
But never been Bono or Sting…”
But sadly, it’s not enough to hide the fact that the whole thing seems so routine and rushed out. There were two eras of The Beautiful South; the early days of the 90s with excellent albums like Welcome To The Beautiful South
, and the latter days of Blue Is The Colour
. How unfortunate then, that they couldn’t find a way out of the musical rut they fell into. Gaze
is the sound of a band petering out, and is an album of songs that sound as confused and wide-eyed as that buzzard looks on the cover. Even fans should consider steering well clear of this. They’ve done so much better.