Although Prefab Sprout never made much of a splash stateside, its 1985 album “Steve McQueen” remains a landmark of 80’s songwriting and production prowess. 1985 was quite possibly the worst year in the history of recorded music, but this was one shining bright spot in a sea of musical excrement.
The lush production is courtesy of one Thomas Dolby (“SCIENCE!!”), who adds space and air to songwriter Paddy McAloon’s dense, sometimes obtuse pretensions, musically and lyrically.
The first 6 songs are absolute classics, and although the techniques Dolby uses are utterly of their time—synth washes, breathy female vocals, etc-the songs themselves remain oddly timeless. ‘Faron’ is a rockabilly shuffler and a great way to start the album but is not quite representative of the remaining tracks which have a connection through the lyrics which primarily deal with the human conditions of loss, regret and redemption.
Witness the lyrics to ‘Moving The River’, a truly wonderful song:
“You surely are a truly gifted kid
But you’re only good as
The last great thing you did
And where’ve you been since then
Did the schedule get you down
I hear you’ve got a new girlfriend
How’s the wife taking it ?
If it’s uphill all the way you should be used to it by now
You must know me, Father it’s your son
And I know that you are proud of everything I’ve done
But it’s the wonders I perform,
Pulling rabbits out of hats
When sometimes I’d prefer
Simply to wear them
Movin’ the river, money for jam, and it takes such an effort to stay where I am…”
‘Bonny’, ’When Love Breaks Down’ and especially ’Appetite’ are standouts of sophisto-pop, and the remaining songs, while perhaps not immediately as affecting, are no less gems in their own right and grow on you like a staph infection.
Over the next decade or so McAloon retreated further and further from the mainstream, becoming a bit of a recluse in the process. The gaps between albums became longer. As the Man himself says, “I drifted a long way from what people’s notions of Prefab Sprout would be. I’ve got to accept that I’ve been on a trajectory away from the rest of the world for a long time.”
He has also been afflicted with a whole bunch of health problems. In the late 1990s he developed a degenerative eye condition. The jelly inside his eyes began shrinking; this tore holes in his retina, allowing the retinal fluid to leak out and wash away the retina. “If I’d have been born 50 years ago I’d be blind by now.” The “eye thing” as he puts it, slowed him down in the studio. Next came The Hearing Thing:
“I was driven mad by it, this loud roar in my right ear. January the 23rd 2006–it collapsed. Music was split into different bits. The Beatles’ ‘Getting Better’, it had the notes that George Harrison’s playing, plus Chinese music happening at the same time. Scary stuff.”
At any rate he got through the worst of it and has now just released an album from sessions completed in 1991-‘92 called “Lets Change The World With Music”, and apparently its fairly wonderful; and only Paddy could get away with an album title that God-awful!