To some, The Artist Better Known As Prefab Sprout occupies an unthreatened throne. A thousand rave reviews, one Top 10 single. A daring debut devoid of choruses. An acoustic version of the 1980s’ finest 33-and-a-thirder that transforms, and occasionally improves upon, the original. A country-suffused album full of John Ford saloons and landscapes from the same pen that assailed The Boss for wittering on about cars and girls. A bittersweet tale of sexual hunger told by a chap pretending to be a pregnant woman talking to her unborn child. Is Paddy McAloon the Geordie Joni, the Tyneside Todd or simply the most unorthodox, most unpindownable, most postmodern songwriter of all?
Sure, he can Gershwin a tune, Webb an arrangement and sing like an angel on prozac; more importantly, no male lyricist since Hal David has written so empathetically from a woman’s point of view. Want to teach your children about the treacherous highways and beguiling byways of romantic lurve? Meet Consett’s Woody Allen.
Has anyone better captured the narrowing chasm between the sexes? Has anyone surpassed his description of desire as a sylph-figured creature who changes her mind? No and no. At least two websites offer incorrect readings of that key line from Desire As, both referring to a self-figured creature. The funny thing is, weirdly, that works too.
Even lukewarm reviews are a stranger. Only a cloth-eared philistine would deny the genius of Swoon, Jordan: The Comeback and, above all, the mighty Steve McQueen, a record so full of sumptuous melodies and such exquisitely observed snapshots of yearning and vulnerability that even Messrs Webb and Wilson might turn a greener shade of lime. Neither Mitchell nor Nyro ever captured the perils of passion better than Paddy did when he assumed the guise of an accidental mother on Appetite.
The most wondrous thing about Being Paddy is that despite the aural and oracular ills that have besieged him, he continues to produce the most heavenly music. The saddest thing about Being Paddy is the possibility that his most ambitious and bravest work stands a better than even chance of never being heard. The stockpile of unfinished symphonies and sympathies mounts with each passing year. ‘I try to avoid recording as much as I can,’ the intrepid stockpiler has confessed, ‘because it’s the moment when all those hypothetical ideas have to become real.’ Price of perfectionism? Fear of rejectionism? Who knows.
Given that they only exist on an old-fashioned contraption we knew fondly as a cassette, how would their author feel, the man from The Scotsman asked a few years back, about such overtures finding their way into the world – à la Jeff Buckley’s posthumous Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk?
‘I would be literally past caring,’ chuckled Paddy. ‘I don’t care. I understand that need and I sometimes have it myself, but a lot of the fun I had wondering about Brian Wilson records is the unknown. Those other projects are all still there and I do still chip away at them, but it’s become a bit of a curse. I’ve been in shops and people will say to me, how’s Earth: The Story So Far coming along, Mr McAloon? I become like a schoolboy dragged before the headmaster. But the other side of this, which to me is a comforting thought, is how much is enough? I’m not trying to raise a mystery unnecessarily but sometimes it’s better to wonder about certain things. Let me be sacrilegious – how many Dylan albums are essential?’
Arguably no more than Mr McAloon himself has mustered. If you offered to trade me a Crimson/Red, a Steve McQueen and a Jordan: The Comeback for a Highway 61, a Blonde On Blonde and a Blood On The Tracks, I’d ponder long and hard, but yes, I’d take it. Throw in three-quarters of Andromeda Heights, 80 per cent of From Langley Park To Memphis, half the scandalously underrated Let’s Change The World With Music, two-and-a-half songs from The Gunman And Other Stories and the gut-wrenching centrepiece of I Trawl The Megahertz and I’d happily live the rest of my life without hearing a bar of the remainder of His Bobness’s oeuvre (save Things Have Changed). I like being sacrilegious too.
I seem to be at odds with most Sproutrockers when it comes to Paddy’s 2013 offering of new material, Crimson/Red. Gratitude had a lot to do with my own tendency to swoon. It was, after all, the first piece of Paddy whacking released at the time of gestation since 2003’s I Trawl The Megahertz, a spare, sombre, string-driven thing of beauty.
Attracting scant attention and even thinner sales, I Trawl The Megahertz is the only album he has released under his own name (when re-released earlier this year it was credited to Prefab Sprout). Its foremost achievement is that, despite the absence of those exquisitely durable choirboy tonsils, the side-long title track is probably the finest flowering yet of his expansive palette of talents. What makes it all the more astonishing is that it came as a direct consequence of eye surgery. Late-night radio became his clay; only by trawling the megahertz did he find inspiration.
Words fail me on this one. Hell, they almost fail Paddy. Consider the opening lines of his liner notes: ‘I Trawl The Megahertz seems to be a portrait of a woman who is trying to make sense of her life by reviewing selected memories. She is like someone with their hand on a radio dial, turning into distant stations, listening to fragments of different broadcasts. I say seems to because a degree of vagueness suits my purpose and reflects the tentative way in which Megahertz was written.’
A 22-minute spoken word and orchestral piece narrated by an American stockbroker named Yvonne Connors, the impossibly plaintive central riff is driven by flugelhorns, cellos and clarinets. In other words, about as far removed from anything else in the Prefab canon as is possible to imagine. In terms of fuck-the-charts stylistic leaps, it’s up there with Neil Young going from Harvest to Tonight’s The Night, Todd Rundgren following up Something/Anything? with A Wizard, A True Star and Lou Reed plunging from Transformer to Berlin. No single piece of music this millennium has so generously rewarded repeated listening.
Some heavy surfing reveals that Crimson/Red was in fact a duffle bag of ditties dating as far back as 1997. Songs without an obvious home, yes, which begs a question: can songs flung together from different periods and mindsets ever belong together? In this case, yes. And not simply because of my great relief that Paddy, for all his woes, for all that sudden penchant for Merlin impressions (dig that wispy white beard) was still up for it, still bubbling, still insatiable in his quest to supply us with as many justifications as he possibly can for the existence of this holy thing we call music. No, it’s more than that. I still iPod it almost as much as I revisit Steve McQueen, thanks primarily to the stunning manner in which it starts and ends. Think Black Dog and When The Levee Breaks; now crank down the volume and ladle on the melody.
Kicking off with the surgingly irresistible single, The Best Jewel Thief In The World, a grandson to Appetite, we hear the final whistle as Mysterious fades out in a soaring flurry of majestic acoustic guitar. These cornerstones share much: a clarity of singing seldom experienced outside a cathedral; decidedly unPaddyish intros (a police siren and a cheesy bingo-hall organ); a far-from-grudging admiration for wilful iconoclasts; versemanship to die for – and a harmonica.
Mysterious in particular is Paddy at his McAlooniest. Nobody can touch him when it comes to celebrating the titans of his trade. He has composed songs, suites and even whole albums about Marvin, Elvis, Mozart and even Michael Jackson (the last regrettably unreleased); here, he gives us a doubleheader, capped by Mysterious, a paen to His Bobness:
You roared right out of Nowheresville To find the beating heart Cryptic, elusive, smart Mysterious from the start The gift of anonymity Inventing your own past Hobo jive on overdrive Your energy is vast To capture the world in images To annotate the feast Your quicksilver task remains Mysterious at least Rejecting others’ plans for you Protest ‘I am miscast’ The mythic fog descends Mysterious to the last
Sure, the clues are all present and correct, but could Paddy also be talking about himself – his own need to be mysterious, his own refusal to compromise? What he admires and loves about Dylan, it seems, is not his music or his words but his courage.
The first half of that doubleheader, The Songs of Danny Galway, is a salute to Jimmy Webb that opens with a couplet to cherish:
I met him in a Dublin bar The sorcerer from Wichita
What follows is assuredly no anti-climax:
In words he paints a vivid scene Of places you may not have been Yet listen and you're moved to swear I know that house, I've climbed that stair I've shared those overwhelming feelings I've suffered loss, I've known such joy Emotions we all know are burnished till they glow In the songs of Danny Galway
His melodies inspire whims His chord changes like Baptist hymns They lift your spirit till its soars Till you forget that spirit’s yours Sound and word in sweet communion Echoes of a better world Where chivalry's not dead, we'll look for it instead In the songs of Danny Galway
And then, to cap it all off, the ultimate praise:
Something well and pure for ever will endure In the songs of Danny Galway
After his initial taste of Crimson/Red, my old mate Tim – a fine songwriter and guitarist who pulled off the notable double of accompanying both Donny Osmond and Tom Verlaine – accused Paddy of trying too hard to sound like Prefab Sprout: the band whose name made his name; the band that, for a very long time indeed, has existed in the same, strictly branding way that Steely Dan have existed since Countdown To Ecstasy. Guilty of satisfying your audience’s greatest cravings: how sinful is that?
As the keeper of such a dazzling flame, Paddy is not unaware of those cravings. ‘Although I played and sang everything myself,’ he concedes openly in his brief liner notes to Crimson/Red, ‘on this particular selection of songs, I am mindful of Prefab Sprout’s history.’ Whereupon he proceeds to thank ex-belle Wendy Smith (whose wispily ethereal vocals constitute the biggest single difference between a Prefab recording and a ‘Prefab’ recording), brother-bassist Martin, drummer Neil Conti and producer Thomas Dolby, among significant others. Perhaps Crimson/Red should have been credited to a tribute band: The Spirit of Prefab Sprout?
Not really. The rest of the tracks might not quite scale the heights of the components already cited but that’s hardly an insult. Adolescence supplies the album’s title (Adolescence, crimson red/ Fireworks inside your head) and says more in its opening four lines than John Hughes managed in all those movies about high-school angst: Adolescence – what’s it like?/ It's a psychedelic motorbike/ You smash her up 10 times a day/ Then walk away.
With its brisk, strident strumming and Faustian undertones, The Devil Came A-Calling belongs on The Gunman, and would have done marvels for that lacklustre work. Billy and The Dreamer are light, bright and endlessly hummable. Grief Built The Taj Mahal is every ounce as heartfelt as you might imagine. The Old Magician is another insightful slant on the performer’s art:
Hidden trapdoor, velvet cape Still from death there's no escape Words of sympathy and tact Only underline the fact Death is a lousy disappearing act
Was Paddy nodding to his own physical and spiritual decline here, owning up to his own self-doubt? Perhaps. Perhaps not. His forthcoming return with Femmes Mythologiques, due for release in September, apparently finds him devoting his singular imagination to man’s favourite mystery: anyone possessing the self-belief to set themselves such a challenge doesn’t need any reassurances from this devotee.
This is a remixed, remodelled version of a blog published on rocksbackpages.com in 2013
Rob Steen is an award-winning author and freshly retired university lecturer who has covered sport and music for all manner of allegedly important newspapers and magazines from Mojo to The Guardian. His next outpouring, due out in April 2020, will be a reissue of his 1994 book The Mavericks: English Football When Flair Wore Flares. For him, Prefab Sprout remain the most inappropriately named act in the entire history of showbusiness, a short nose ahead of Vampire Weekend and Paper Lace
Read George Chesterton on Prefab Sprout’s Nightingales here