It’s been seven years since Prefab Sprout’s epic ‘Jordan: The Comeback’, although it could have been seven months. Their latest album is mercifully free of all the fifteen minute fashionable styles that have cluttered up this decade. Paddy McAloon - A Wizard, a True Sprout - still approaches pop music with all the care Mozart lavished on his symphonies. As ever, his influences are more Porter and Gershwin than Lennon and McCartney. ‘Andromeda Heights’, Prefab Sprout’s fifth studio album proper (their sixth if you include ‘Protest Songs’), sees McAloon determined to operate as far as possible beyond the remit of rock orthodoxy without sinking into the mire sign posted "muzak".
Don’t forget that McAloon - Jim Webb, Brian Wilson and Lindsay Buckingham rolled into one if you’re a fan, the post punk Andrew Lloyd Webber if you’re not - spent his sabbatical writing songs for Jimmy Nail. as well as God Watch Over You, a near-hit for Frances Ruffelle. Indeed, there are moments when the slickness of ‘Andromeda Heights’, the varnished production (Thomas Dolby is absent, not that you’d notice) and textrous synth work, the saxophones and strings, veer towards easy listening obsolescence.
Those moments are rare. Besides, it’s all matter of perception. Because, as far as rock goes in 1997, this is radical. The hyper-literacy, the heartfelt reverence, the prevailing mood of bittersweet romanticism - no one, not even ABC or Scritti Politti, is doing this anymore.
It starts with Electric Guitars, a red herring of a title, just as Machine Gun Ibiza was on ‘Jordan’. it’s not a critique of contemporary music trends, it recounts a dream of rock stardom that becomes a reality, all ‘mascara meltdown’ and ‘hysteria a-go-go’. A slight piece of whimsy, or a self deprecating rewrite of Prefab’s history (McAloon may receive degree level scrutiny, but the screaming girls are few and far between). Either way it sets the cinematic tone: Andromeda Heights would make a great soundtrack.
A soundtrack for a movie about falling in and out of love of course. Like Woody Allen’s ‘Everyone Says I love You’, it communicates the rapture of love yet eschews accusations of triteness by dint of its sheer ambition.
If you’re expecting the spikily pun-gent of yore, though, you might be disappointed. On a track like
Cruel (from 1984’s ‘Swoon’), the former trainee priest explored Catholic guilt via a passionate display of male heterosexual desire that took account of feminism. On Appetite (from 1985’s ‘Steve McQueen’), he offered a seductive yet critical portrait of insatiable lust. Here, Paddy seems to be saying nothing more complex than Life’s a Miracle, gasping in wonder at
The Mystery Of Love as he floats down an Avenue Of Stars.
However, the Hollywood magnificence of the venture banishes any fears of banality. The Disneyesque fantasy of
Whoever You Are, the schlocky glockenspiels of Anne Marie, the harp glissandos of the tile tack...this is audacious stuff. Even
The Fifth Horseman, the album’s sole concession to ‘rocking out’, is a gossamer blitzkrieg compared to anything else in the genre. Wendy Smith’s angel sighs wafting over weightless layers of acoustic instrumentation, courtesy of Paddy’s brother, Martin.Prefab enter a whole new dimension of luscious sound and lyrical poignancy on Swans, two minutes and 36 seconds of almost hymnal beauty. Eerily stripped down, against a basic electric piano motif, counterpointed by harpsichord and violins. McAloon croons, breathily as ever, a short poem whose imagery is somehow enormously affecting.
It remains to be seen whether ‘Andromeda Heights’ will endure like ‘Steve McQueen’ or ‘from Langley Park to Memphis’ - suffice to say that it knocks most current pop into a cocked hat. Still, you can't help feeling dissatisfied after the 19 track banquet that was ‘Jordan: the Comeback’. Whatever happened to Paddy’s ‘Zorro The Fox’ musical, the Prefab-gospel ‘atomic Hymnbook’, the Michael Jackson song stories, or the vaunted ‘History Of The World’ extravaganza’? More, please of this genius,