Former Haircut 100 frontman embraces his pop roots, takes his foot off the loud pedal and delivers the best guitar solo of the year!

If I showed you a picture of Nick Heyward in 1982, you’d probably recognise him. Cute as a button, with a sensible, chunky knit sweater tucked into corduroy trousers. He may even be wearing a pair of spectacles. For about two years, his band, Haircut 100, sat at the top table of pop in the UK alongside Adam Ant, The Human League, Tears For Fears, Yazoo and (ulp…) Renee and Renato. Like every good pop group is supposed to do, they split and Nick went his own sweet way. He had a bunch of hits, too. Even at an early age, Nick had a way with a tune and produced a string of top drawer chartbound sounds. Whatever happened to him?

This is Heyward’s sixth solo release since 1983. Not the kind of work rate to rival Husker Du, but all of those six albums have been sparkly pop gems, in different ways. We’ve moved from ultra-produced, expensive session-men loaded albums through to home-made affairs. The latest – “Woodland Echoes” is definitely from the latter pile. You know what… it’s all the better for that approach.

“Woodland Echoes” has managed to combine Heyward’s rockin’ side (yes, hes got a rockin’ side – stick around and I’ll explain…), and a charming and winsome pastoral side that only English songwriters seem to be able to access. it’s all wrapped up in a lovely pop aesthetic. No self-indulgence. No lengthy “suites” in three parts. Pop that gets to the point and leaves before all the chips and dips are finished. It’s great.

His last two albums (if we don’t count his poetry album and a collaboration with India Dupre) were almost alt-rock. Loud guitars and Teenage FanClub-esque material was the order of the day. Just to ramp up the credibility even further, his 1998 album “The Apple Bed” was on the Creation label – home to the Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream and TFC amongst others. But, he never forgot the importance of a pop tune, which meant even when he was rockin’ out (see -I told you!) the melody was king. “Woodland Echoes” takes its foot off the loud pedal a little and gets a bit more acoustic guitar-y, but the melodies are still as sumptuous.

While English musicians aren’t great at power-pop, generally, but Heyward is bucking that trend, big style. Fans of loud, will appreciate the first single from the album – “Baby Blue Sky”, where Mr. Heyward pounds his shiny Gretsch guitar while everyone else harmonises prettily behind him. You won’t hear a better guitar solo on a record this year, either. “Perfect Sunday Sun” is in the same ballpark, too. When you’re tired from all that jumping up and down, you can marvel at the Nick Drake chord progression that makes up “Beautiful Morning”, the campfire singalong of “Mountaintop” and the faux-jazz “Who?” And for those of you who still look wistfully at a copy of the “Smash Hits” annual for 1982, with a tear in either eye, Mr Heyward has thoughtfully given you “The Stars” so you can get busy to some pop-jazzfunk while you wonder if your 501’s will still fit you. (They won’t …sorry).

Occasionally, during the making of this album in back-bedrooms in multiple locations, Heyward had to strap on his 1982 costume and prop up the bills in nostalgia package tours to pay for studio time to mix and master his recordings. Is he bitter? Well…no. He’s proud (and a little bemused) that “Woodland Echoes” has emerged after a long, slow gestation to be such a beautiful collection of great songs. If you’re still labouring under the misapprehension that Nick Heyward is “that guy from that band that I’ve not even thought about since Madonna stopped wearing a headband” then shame on you. “Woodland Echoes” is a masterclass on making pop music that doesn’t suck.