Once, while listening to Prefab Sprout’s ‘Protest Songs’, wide-eyed in admiration at the musical facility, the poetic imagination, the sheer individuality of it all, my friend had a near allergic reaction, announced that the music was revolting and left to lie down for an hour to
Even as a supporter, I knew what he meant. Sometimes there’s a whispery preciousness, a cavalier I-thought-it-must-be good to Paddy’s work that - if he insists on pursuing a twee idea into the ground
(Dublin from ‘Protest songs’ or Michael from ‘Jordan’ for example) and it catches you in the wrong mood - makes you want to push his face
Sprout advocates, however, have Paddy McAloon as a maverick genius, one of it’s great chordsmiths and melodists, a lyricist of range and ambition, a songwriter of daring originality and fiercely individual discernment. Artists like that always divide the room, but anyone remotely interested in the possibilities of the pop song will want to know where he’s at these days.The albums have never been less than intriguing. The debut ‘Swoon’ (1984) remains a breathtakingly impressive record with more jump-cut melodies, quasi-jazz /fusion changes and oblique lyrical twists than the ears can initially make sense of. ‘Steve McQueen’ was as rich but more streamlined, benefiting from a taut Thomas Dolby production and the majestic breakthrough single ‘When Love Breaks Down’. ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ (1988) had a clutch of radio-friendly hits and the lushest sound yet, then followed the stripped down, for the fans feel of ‘Protest Songs’ (released in 1989, recorded in 1986) there was ‘Jordan: The Comeback’ an ostentatious, mixed metaphor of an album (Elvis/God/Jesse James) which combined the sublime
(Looking For Atlantis, One Of The Broken) with the disastrous (the title track,
Michael) in a muddled whole that seemed somewhat overblown even
Since then, a couple of newies on ‘The Best Of’, a couple of cowboy strumalongs for Jimmy Nail’s
Crocodile Shoes and that’s it. The period between albums five and six was longer than that covering the first five. And at last here it is, McAloon’s sky, space and stars
Breathe out. It’s splendid. Not in that panoramic, reverby, hi-it’s-God-here manner, but rather the opposite. It’s a wan, inviting record, immediately likeable and trustworthy. Sonically, it’s more attractive than ‘Jordan’ or ‘Langley Park’. The Christmas keyboards and shimmering Stepford Wives backing vocals have been toned down and there's no power snare, allowing McAloon’s essential wisdom and humanity to shine through all the
Of course, if you found the lyrical conceipts and artsy muzak of previous Sprouts efforts hard to take, then parts of this will probably still bring you out in a rash. But there’s such modesty and straightforwardness to much of this music that you may find yourself responding to Prefab Sprout in a way that you’ve not done previously; with a full
The tone is set with the opener ‘Electric Guitars’, an elegant Beatle reverie. Resplendent acoustic guitars in an irresistibly polite lope and a song, once heard, you’ve known all your life. Paddy’s still singing like the wind is in his hair, but this time he’s not in the Grand Canyon, he’s right in your ear. He’s back, you’re in, he’s got
Later, there is a couple of delicately handled coveting-your-neighbour’s-wife songs,
Swans and Anne Marie, both take the musical and moral path of restraint. Go on, time for you to sail back to his side he sings in
Swans casting himself as a fox ‘hiding’ swathing his beautiful vocal in rippling vibraphone and sighing strings. if this song is an indication of the quality of the ‘Zorro The Fox’ project, Disney - make that film. The hero of
Anne Marie (I have a history of wanting what I cannot have / This time it’s you) has wobblier resolve but a no less sumptuous setting. The arrangements on both tracks are complex and detailed but discreet and superbly realised, entirely at the service of these substantial, involving songs.
Whoever you Are is a marvelously old-fashioned, stupidly romantic soft rock ballad, of the sort that Sinatra recorded in the late 60’s, and although it's done well enough here it’s crying out for a grizzled old saloon singer to give it some weight. (Send it to Tony Bennnett, he’s the only one left). Actually, several of McAloon’s songs deserve reexamination
(Nightingales is a gem of a song but a baubled nightmare on ‘Langley Park’) and, in the absence of the ‘Unplugged’ special, time for a producer-led oeuvre album, I
The title track, following a gorgeous prelude, is an enchanting Brian Wilson-esque waltz with a building a home metaphor for setting such a good example of how to live, everyone wants to be a part of it. Sounds like the beginnings of a cult, but it warms the heart somehow. It has a pull.
Fifth Horseman and
Avenue Of Stars have an uphill struggle convincing us of the song’s premise
(Love is the Fifth Horseman of the apocalypse and Love is an Avenue
of Stars respectively) but it’s Paddy’s world, we have to trust his judgment and go with him.
Fifth Horseman just about survives; a good tune with searing harmonica and the closest the album gets to the rumblebass rocking they did so well on
Appetite and Cars and Girls. Avenue of Stars doesn’t really make it. The image isn’t pulled together into anything coherent or communicative and it’s one of a couple of examples of misjudged, over-arranged tinkering on the album (the disappointing Spectoresque single
Prisoner Of The Past being the other). It sounds like the demo of a new synth where all the sounds are tried at once. And, while I’m grumbling, I could have done without the X-Files whistle and the uptight ITV drama saxophone all over the record. There,
There are two songs,
Mystery Of Love and Life’s A Miracle, that seem to me to be the unlikely emotional heart of the album. The lyrics are cliches, platitudes of Susan Polls Schultz proportions (What you see in me I’ll never know / That’s the mystery of love, Tell someone you love them / There’s always a way) and the music is near prosaic, yet there's a simple, powerful beauty that makes these songs almost pure experience. The skin tingled, the eyes watered. Seriously. That’s not just music, it’s magic. Cynics will marvel he sings on the song Andromeda Heights. Here and there, Paddy, I was on my knees. Business as usual, then.