By Eleni P. Austin
“Desire is a sylph-figured creature that changes her mind…” That’s a lyric from the band Prefab Sprout, circa 1985. More accurately it was written by the British band’s boy-wonder frontman, Paddy McAloon.
Back in the ‘80s, bands like Aztec Camera, Style Council, Everything But The Girl and the Blue Nile managed to slip their sophisticated song craft in under the neon cloak of New Wave. This was especially true of Prefab Sprout.
Paddy McAloon and his bassist brother, Martin, formed Prefab Sprout in Newcastle in 1977. The apocryphal explanation for the band’s name had McAloon mis-hearing the lyrics from the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra hit, “Jackson” as “we got married in a fever, hotter than a prefab sprout.”
Actually, McAloon devised the meaningless name as a mocking homage to ‘60s bands like The Strawberry Alarm Clock or the Electric Prunes. (McAloon’s inspirations were less Sid Vicious, more Syd Barrett).
In late 1983, early fan Wendy Smith joined the line-up and the band released their first single on their own Candle label. “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)” was a clever and heartfelt ode to the girl who’d gotten away, (to Limoges, France making the song title also an acronym).
Their debut, Swoon, soon followed; a heady and wordy collection of songs that examined heartbreak and Bobby Fisher, the romantic associations of basketball, and all manner of teenage ephemera. It received rave reviews in Great Britain. McAloon was immediately compared to Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Difford & Tilbrook, (the clever blokes in Squeeze), Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter.
The band upped the ante considerably on their sophomore effort, Steve McQueen. (Re-titled “Two Wheels Good” in America, where the late actor’s estate claimed copyright infringement). Production chores were handled by whiz kid/mad scientist Thomas Dolby. It was a perfect fit. The band also added a fourth member to the mix, drummer Neil Conti.
By their third album, From Langley Park To Memphis, Prefab Sprout were ready to conquer the world. It’s fair to say they were slightly obsessed with America, songs like “The King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Cars & Girls” paid sideways homage to Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen, respectively. “Hey Manhattan!” was a breathless valentine to McAloon’s sudden New York State Of Mind.
Although they achieved cult popularity here, their success never matched the dizzying heights reached by peers like the Smiths, the Cure or Depeche Mode. Prefab released a fourth album, Jordan: The Comeback, (a treatise on the intersection of religion and celebrity), and then they kind of drifted away.
They really hadn’t, but the band quit touring, McAloon dealt with health issues, a detatched retina, cataracts and later tinnitus. Their album releases were sporadic at best, Andromeda Heights in 1997, the ambitious The Gunman And Other Stories in 2001 and Let’s Change The World With Music in 2009.
These days, Prefab Sprout is really just Paddy McAloon. In a remarkably rapid turnaround, just four years after Let’s Change The World… he has returned with Crimson/Red.
The album opens with “The Best Jewel Thief In The World.” Sleek and elegant, the melody is built on a propulsive rhythm and sugar-rush guitar riffs. The lyrics unspool an action packed yarn centering on a smooth criminal…”Nimble as a cat, they’re hoping your luck deserts you/They’re sharpening their knives, but you’ve got nine lives.”
McAloon has always been a clever but cryptic lyricist. On three songs here, “Devil Came A Calling,” “The Songs Of Danny Galway” and “The Old Magician” he abandons his past opacity offering up a more straightforward narrative.
“Devil…” rides in on a galloping beat. McAloon paints a vivid picture of Mephistophelian seduction…”He showed me his world, hell, he threw me the keys/Introduced me to women who went down on their knees.” Before he knows it, he’s sold his soul to the devil.
“The Songs Of Danny Galway” matches ornate instrumentation with a beatific melody. The lyrics sketch out a chance encounter with Jimmy Webb… “I met him in a Dublin bar, a sorcerer from Witchita, a wizard and his baby grand, a range of powers at his command.”
McAloon continues, paying homage to the man responsible for classics like “MacArthur Park,” “Wichita Lineman”and “Galveston.” “…Emotions we all know are burnished til they glow in the songs of Danny Galway.”
The jaunty melody of “The Old Magician” belies its dour lyrics. Accented by jangly guitars and fleet harmonica fills, it’s a brittle character study. Even magicians suffer from the slow arc of decline…”As dignified as you’ll allow, he’ll take one last, one final bow/ He’s lost all his illusions now.”
The best tracks here are “List Of Impossible Things” and “Adolescence.” The former is a gorgeous waltz, powered by stutter-step guitar riffs. An achingly pure meditation on blind faith, it offers this ethereal couplet…”Trust what you cannot know and pray til your prayers make it so.”
The latter is a trenchant assessment of the anguish that accompanies puberty. Over a hiccup-y heartbreak beat, blippy bloopy synthesizers and plangent guitars, McAloon captures the many moods of juvenilia… “Adolescence, what’s it like? It’s a psychedelic motor bike, You smash it up 10 times a day and walk away/…it’s moonlight on a balcony, it’s pure hormonal agony/It’s bad poetry and greeting cards.”
Other interesting tracks include the piano driven roundelay of “The Dreamer,” the sly “Billy” and the languid ballad, “Grief Built The Taj Mahal.”
The album closes with “Mysterious.” Anchored by a tick-tock rhythm, soaring harmonica and a roller-rink Farfisa organ, (“everybody skate backwards!”) The lyrics are an eloquent love letter to the power of songwriting… “To catch the world in images, to annotate the feast, this quicksilver task remains mysterious at least.”
The acerbic boy who cooly announced “I’ve got six things on my mind, you’re no longer one of them,” (desire being a sylph-figured creature, and all), is gone.
In his place is an urbane, witty, sophisticate; equal parts Cary Grant and Howard Hughes.
Crimson/Red offers erudite lyrics wrapped in gossamer melodies. Paddy McAloon’s output may not be prolific, but it’s well worth the wait.