That Joe Payne – Bread & Circuses

That Joe Payne – Bread & Circuses

That Joe Payne returns with his latest collection of songs, Bread & Circuses, and I have to say it’s an excellent palette cleanser of an album for those of us more usually listening to a strict diet of progressive rock! With his first solo effort, By Name. By Nature., we found Joe getting more comfortable being himself, rather than trying to live up to expectations. Bread & Circuses sees him continuing on this path, and it sounds completely natural and honest.

That honesty is evidenced on Plastic Grass, where despite his confidence and comfort in his own skin, he still admits to doubts on his direction.

“Never stopped pursuing my dreams
And as hard as it’s been
Doubts creep in telling me to
Try something new on the side.”

It’s a delightful keyboard dominated song, with typically thoughtful autobiographical lyrics, and a beautifully memorable chorus that will have you joining in.

But let’s start at the beginning, and the first catchy as Covid song is called Falling in Love is Easy. It screams Michael Jackson! At first it may sound rather simplistic, but listen to the arrangement of those backing vocals, and it’s as though Todd Rundgren snuck in on the session! He didn’t, of course, but it has that kind of authentic pop sound, and it’s that kind of detail which makes even the most immediate tracks worth several listens to fully appreciate them. Hot on the heels of this statement of intent is River Run Dry, which for the opening bars sounds like it might occupy Peter Gabriel territory, with an ominous guitar chord suggesting a lurking danger. However, the message of planetary disaster contrasts completely with the ’90s pop dynamics and production which is more reminiscent of Madonna from that period. And you know what? It works! Somehow, the message isn’t lost in translation.

“’Cos when the river
When the river run dry
Water come in the tears that we cry
14 billion tear drops
One from each eye.”

My Heart follows, and is a lush and melodramatic piece of romanticism, with a great orchestral strings arrangement from Max Read, and a truly operatic vocal performance from the man himself. One of the strengths of this record is the diversity of styles on display, somehow arranged into a harmonious whole listening experience. Live the Dream is a prime example, where Joe unleashes his inner Liza Minnelli in a cabaret style slice of pure theatre, complete with wonderful trumpet accompaniment from Moray MacDonald. It’s a song begging to be made visual, but is so well written, it works perfectly well as a stand alone song.

Despite Everything is another shamelessly romantic big orchestral arrangement with more astonishing vocal gymnastics from Joe. It’s a song which is, again, more complicated than it first seems, and I can imagine it may well have taken some work to reach its finished version. It is followed by the relatively throw away and comedic Fucking Fucked. It’s so hilarious it’s hard to imagine anyone taking offence, but who knows? The lyrics again contrast with the music box style beautifully, resulting in something akin to an innocent foul-mouthed sugar plum fairy, but it’s a short interlude prefacing the title track, for me easily the best song on the album, Bread & Circuses. It’s certainly the most ‘prog’ song, taking unexpected little twists, and delivering a chorus which is simply breathtaking. You want it to go on and on, but it dissolves into some guitar fireworks before anyone’s attention span is tested. If you only listen to one song from this album, make it this one, though I doubt you’d want to stop there!

So there we are, That Joe Payne and his supporting cast show what can be done when expectations are eschewed, and the open minded amongst us can cut loose and just enjoy a well crafted pop record for 40 minutes. It proves that music can be fun, and yet still be meaningful. He sings like an angel, he loves, he cares, he searches and he doubts. He’s human, and brave enough to show it. He’s come a long way since being introduced to us through The Enid, and he’s got a long way to go. Where next I wonder?

01. Falling in Love is Easy (4:01)
02. River Run Dry (5:37)
03. My Heart (5:55)
04. Plastic Grass (5:18)
05. Live the Dream (4:00)
06. Despite Everything (5:59)
07. Fucking Fucked (2:29)
08. Bread & Circuses (6:45)

Total Time – 40:04

That Joe Payne – Vocals, Piano, Keyboards
Max Read – Guitar (track 8), Programming
Oliver Day – Guitar (track 5)
Esmeralda Edwards – Bass (tracks 1 & 3)
Josh Green – Drums (track 5)
Moray MacDonald – Trumpet (track 5)
Jake Perrett – Drums (tracks 1,3,6 & 8)
Joshua Ryan – Guitar (tracks 1,2,3 & 8)

Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 22nd September 2023

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