Paul Heaton / Jacqui Abbott

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N.K-Pop Review

by Marcy Donelson

Released in early 2020, the ambitious double album Manchester Calling was the duo's fourth U.K. Top Five hit and first to go all the way to number one. The follow-up, N.K-Pop, finds Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott returning to the studio with producer John Williams and the same backing band. A like-minded, generally uplifting, uptempo set (this time comprising a still generous 12 songs), it even opens with a track called "The Good Times." Bright but lyrically wistful, the song looks back -- in character -- upon the life of a formative sweetheart, while touching briefly upon disco, reggae, and arena rock within a bouncy pop framework. Heaton and Abbott are well known for drawing on a variety of 20th century influences, and "Too Much for One (Not Enough for Two)" moves on to a gospel-tinged boogie, while "When the World Would Actually Listen" delves into strings-enhanced '70s Motown. The latter song stays in line with the album's danceable tempos, snapping fingers along to lines like "There's an own goal from the halfway line in all of us." The pair do slow things down a couple times, including on the vintage prom waltz "Who Built the Pyramids" ("Made it imperfect/A little like me") and on melancholy outlier and album highlight "Still." Appearing midway through the sequencing, "Still" is a cinematic ballad whose lyrical melody illuminates lyrics about losing a child. (Heaton works with the charity Sands, which promotes research on the causes of stillbirths and neonatal deaths.) N.K-Pop resumes its otherwise brisk pace on the chugging, locomotive-like "I Ain't Going Nowhere," whose bluesy clarinet and twangy guitar and vocals evoke "a wanderlust that just can't be denied" -- except that travel has been canceled. Among the remaining entries is an odd takeoff on "Baby It's Cold Outside" that references everything from Alcatraz and STDs to Top of the Pops, as if to prove that Heaton and Abbott can make a wry pop ditty out of just about anything.

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