If you held a gun against my head and asked me who my favorite pop group is, I’d have to say Prefab Sprout. I’ve loved Prefab Sprout ever since I read a review of my second EP stating how obvious it was that I had been listening excessively to Prefab Sprout. Actually, I had never heard Prefab Sprout, but as the indignation of being misrepresented wore off, curiosity settled in and I picked up the seminal Prefab Sprout album, 1985’s Two Wheels Good (known as Steve McQueen outside the U.S.).
While I raked autumn leaves in my stepfather’s garden, my vanity scanned the record for anything that might remind me of my own music. What I found resembled not so much how I sounded but how I felt. Barely 19 and still living with my mom while chasing my debut album across the world on infinite promotional tours, it was an incredibly confusing and eventful time. And Prefab Sprout turned out to be my absurd and emphatic compass through most of it. Their songs made room for everything I was dealing with: adolescent arrogance, sexual frustrations, conflicted resentment, helpless romanticism, long overdue generational confrontations.
I had read somewhere that Prefab Sprout lead singer and songwriting maestro Paddy McAloon wrote most of Two Wheels Good when he was around 18 years old. It sure seemed plausible to me. The way he expresses both desperate rebellion and inherent compassion in the tremendous song “Moving the River” felt so on point with regards to my life and personality at the time that I’m sure I blushed the first time I heard it. I could certainly appreciate how Paddy’s songs frequently came peppered with fascinating bizarre imagery (“turkey hungry”? “chicken free”?) amid moments of overwhelming intimacy, brutal honesty and extraordinarily bold melodic delight. For a band that would go on to have so many songs concerned with popular culture and myth, Prefab Sprout certainly did appear out of their element in the pop world; lost on an island entirely their own, with no context connecting them to the mainland. They always looked extraordinarily uncomfortable in their videos. You truly believed they were all about the music, as they appeared to have little else to offer. I could relate.
Somewhere at the back of my mind I had grown increasingly confused as to how to follow up the overwhelming success of my debut album Faces Down, but Prefab Sprout’s concise yet liberal song structures and heartfelt yet erratic lyrical convictions encouraged me to walk on unafraid.
The songs I wrote after falling so hard for Prefab Sprout were initially short on “concise” and big on “erratic,” but at least I was on a roll. When I sent a demo of 30 brand new solo songs to my producers at the time, I never really heard back. One of my best songs, “Two Way Monologue,” was among these. The song includes several giddy lyrical references to the aforementioned “Moving the River,” my newfound soulmate. People who assume my lyrics are strange because Norwegian is my first language usually haven’t heard the unorthodox yet highly emphatic poetry of these early Prefab Sprout albums.
As the ’80s morphed into the ’90s, each Prefab Sprout record got slightly glossier than the last, as Paddy’s lyrics grew out of the wry, restless energy of those early albums, and bigger perspectives on themes such as religion and popular culture took over, culminating with 1990‘s preposterous and brilliant Jordan: The Comeback, a song cycle about God, Elvis, Jesse James and Ibiza. After that, new Prefab music was sporadic, even though Paddy was reportedly writing and recording a string of increasingly curious concept albums in his home studio.
Only one of these albums, 2009’s Let’s Change the World with Music (a typically boldly naïve late-career McAloon title) has thus far been released. As always, the songs were exquisite — if dangerously kitchy and over-the-top in their religious allegories and excitement over the love of music — but the production and arrangements sounded like home demos from 1992. Which wasn’t surprising considering that’s exactly what they were.
In 2013, not much has changed, except this time Paddy McAloon is offering up Crimson/Red, his first brand-new collection of songs in 12 years, once again recorded and performed alone in his home studio in Newcastle. At 56, with impaired vision and tinnitus, Paddy McAloon, appears to have neither the capacity nor the need to communicate with an audience or maintain a career in popular music, all of which makes this unobtrusive, weird and warm little record such a gift to fans such as I.
Highlights such as “Adolescence” and “Billy” inhabit a lyrical tenderness and melodic freshness that, despite the cheap drum sounds and often clumsy, stiff programming — or perhaps because of those things — transcends time and production aesthetics. In interviews Paddy has explained that he’d rather write another song than learn a new recording software with hipper sounds. And you can tell where his heart is. Several of the songs achieve unpretentious brilliance in earnest, workmanlike ways. Fellow songwriting giants Jimmy Webb (“The Songs of Danny Galway”) and Bob Dylan (“Mysterious”) each get their own enthusiastic tribute song. As always, exquisite, unpredictable melodic turns are plentiful, even as song structures reveal a desire for tidier, more simplistic structures this time around, while several brilliant lyrics linger with you for a long time (“The Old Magician” may just as well be about a struggling husband).
As such, Crimson/Red may very well be Prefab Sprout’s best collection of songs since Jordan: The Comeback. It is also likely Paddy’s most deeply humane and grounded work on record, and unlike anything you’ll hear anywhere nowadays.
The songs that interest me the least, such as the sheeny baroque folk of “Grief Built the Taj Mahal” and “Devil Came a Calling,” a minor key country romp, feel a touch too predictable in their desire to salute specific traditions and fulfill genre obligations, at least considering Paddy’s formidable capacities and ambitions. “Devil…” also finds Paddy veering dangerously close to David Brent territory, both lyrically and vocally. Here he unwittingly enters into a deal with the seductive devil who lives on Fellatio Drive, where women apparently go “down on their knees.” But Paddy’s always had a secret tooth for the corny, perhaps as a natural instinct to balance out his instinctive sophistication. He still likes doing that weird, goofy low voice here and there, and I’m in no position to tell him to stop.
When Crimson/Red leaked online a couple of months ago, several frail fans instantly wrote off the album as a very impressive hoax, partly due to the seemingly untypical use of the word “asshole” in lead single “The Best Jewel Thief in the World” (a songwriter’s pep-talk to himself if I ever heard one). Surely Paddy wouldn’t resort to such language at his age? As it turns out, he would, and fans need not be surprised considering some of the bitter, harsh language displayed on early Prefab Sprout albums. If anything, it’s rather refreshing to hear Paddy’s soft, low croon utter the word “asshole” in 2013.
Once you embrace Crimson/Red’s aesthetic dogma and get past the underselling production values and limited acoustic textures — and I do admit it took me some time to get past the thought of what these songs might sound like in the hands of a producer like Thomas Dolby, Ethan Johns, or what about Oneothrix Point Never? — the album feels like a heartwarming, inspired and inspirational oasis, so out of touch with anything going on anywhere that it might as well be delightful folk music from another planet. Paddy McAloon has blocked out the world entirely, and we are but blessed to get a rare peek into his modest workshop. And there he sits, programming the lamest drums to the most beautiful songs you’ve ever heard. It just feels good to know he’s there.