July 13, 2020

A deeply thoughtful work which delves beneath the surface of the music to give the listener a real glimpse into what it is to be ‘that Joe Payne’.

Most people – or most prog fans,certainly – will probably know Joe Payne (with or without ‘That’) as the singer with bombastic symphonic band The Enid. When he joined the band, it was a very divisive move among the band’s hardcore followers, as they had always been almost exclusively an instrumental band (the odd vocal excursion such as the Something Wicked This Way Comes album notwithstanding, and had certainly never had what you would call a dedicated vocalist/frontman. Many declared it sacrilege, while others lauded the move as breathing new life into the band after some 35 years as a recording outfit. Whichever way you viewed it, the one thing which is undeniable is that Joe embraced the challenge, faced his detractors and fronted it out in a way that was definitively both ‘professional’ and ‘showbusiness’. Here was a man who knew what he wanted to do, had confidence in himself, and knew in his mind that he could succeed against the odds. Listening to this – his debut solo album – it becomes clear that this same attitude which defined his entry into the Enid is also true of the man himself.

I Need A Change artwork, reproduced in album booklet

Let’s start at the beginning. Joe Payne is a young man (at 30, that’s young compared to many of us, believe me!), and grew up in Northampton, where he met The Enid in 2009. As a gay man, even in these more recent relatively enlightened times, he clearly overcame his share of obstacles, but this does not define his work. An intensely personal album, this is far more of a universal confessional than a mere diary, as there are many themes of struggling for acceptance both inner and outer which will resonate with people right across the spectrum. There are moments of self-deprecating humour, as in the sardonic wink of the title track (‘That Joe Payne will be no good to ya / He’s a Payne by name and a pain by nature’), contrasted with real moments of opening up to the world (the closing End Of The Tunnel and the cathartic I Need A Change) – the latter having been written at a time of real mental breakdown coinciding with his split from The Enid in 2016. He is not a man to shy away from his own sexuality – as the brilliantly stereotype-puncturing cover to his What Is The World Coming To EP shows, with Joe standing triumphant for battle with broadsword, tight shorts and rainbow flag, shows! – but this is no work of a one dimensional character. Rather, this is a deeply thoughtful work which delves beneath the surface of the music to give the listener a real glimpse into what it is to be ‘that Joe Payne’. And it’s fascinating.

But what of the music? After all, that’s what reels you in to start with. The answer to that is quite simply ‘unique’, if forced to use one word. Unique in the sense that, though all of these elements are familiar, finding them all together in one 50-minute place is much less so. Given Joe’s background in the performing arts before his Enid days, it is no surprise that there is a significant layer of ‘West End’ bombast and glitter on show. There is also plenty of the Enid’s big, grandiose choral and orchestral layers for fans of that band to get their teeth into. There’s rock, there’s elements of jazz and dance in there, and a large dollop of classical influence. Through it all though is that big, demonstrative West End Show element, seeing to it that the music always achieves its full drama, pathos and emotional punch. It is true that it does require a certain tolerance for that particular genre, but if you have a liking for that (and Jim Steinman made a living from it!), then this should be right up your Sunset Boulevard.

With Ms Amy Birks on stage. From album booklet.

The centrepiece is probably the lengthy I Need A Change. As previously mentioned, it is a work of enormous personal catharsis, and not hard for other troubled souls to identify with. Honestly, with the right pair of receptive ears at the right time, this would be music to save lives. It’s chilling yet ultimately uplifting, and musically full of that big Enid sturm und drang, and a clear highlight. There are others though. Love (Not The Same) is a dramatic balladic duet with Ms Amy Birks, whose contribution to the song is absolutely immense, showcasing just what a gifted voice she has. The title track is catchy, quirky and funny, like Freddie Mercury showing his dark humorous side with I’m Going Slightly Mad as against the high tragedy of These Are The Days Of Our Lives or Love Of My Life. In My Head may be the track most of interest to Enid fans, growing as it has out of a part originally intended for the song Something Shall Rise from their Dust album, but ultimately not used. What Is The World Coming To is faintly reminiscent of Motorcycle Emptiness by the Manic Street Preachers filtered through Les Miserables, if such a thing can be imagined! There are even a couple of ‘bonus tracks’ which see Joe running a bit of Henry Purcell and Beethoven through the Payne Ideas Mill, but though these are interesting experiments, they don’t really fit the overall concept of the album proper, so labelling them as bonuses is probably the correct decision.

It’s not a perfect album – as a couple of points, I felt that one or two of the big choral parts were slightly overused, detracting from the flow a little, and that perhaps more room should have been made for the instrumentation to tie things together, and also a couple of big, memorable choruses might have put the icing on the cake. Overall, however, this is a triumphant work, and more than that, a courageous one. ‘That Joe Payne’ has put his heart and soul on the line, and created an album which isn’t one to put on in the car while you nip to the supermarket, but one which demands to be listened to and absorbed in a single sitting. The superb booklet aids this, as it not only features all of the lyrics, but also facts about each song and some great shots of single and EP artwork (along with a thankfully-aborted album cover!). If you give your time and attention to this album, it will give plenty back to you, and you may well come away feeling you have seen a window into this fascinatingly complex character.

That Joe Payne? He’s all right by me!