Prefabulousby David Shirley
Prefab Sprout: Steve McQueen (Kitchenware Records)
“Antiques!” snarls Prefab Sprout’s composer/lead vocalist Paddy MacAloon in the opening bars of “Faron,” the first track of the band’s 1985 pop masterpiece Steve McQueen.
Every other sentiment’s an antique,
As obsolete as warships in the Baltic
With its plodding rhythm guitars, jerky rockabilly beat, and unremittingly bitter lead vocal, the song bursts out of the speakers as a furious assault on late-night country radio and the music’s legions of working-class English fans. MacAloon continues his ranting on the chorus, his contempt increasing with each verse:
You offer infrared instead of sun
You offer paper spoons and bubble gum
You give me Faron Young,
Four in the mornin’
In spite of the apparent condescension of the early verses, the song’s greatest contempt is reserved for the singer himself, who on the final verse confesses his own tormented love affair with the facile emotions and glib consolations of mainstream country music. It’s enough to make a person doubt his own grip on reality.
The sunset makes a fence out of the forest
But here I am with head inside the bonnet
I’ve lost just what it takes to be honest
By the end of the song, the original rhetorical indictment ("How can anyone possibly take this crap seriously?”) has been replaced by a much more fascinating—and disturbing—question: “How can it be that I have somehow invested my own heartbreak and desire in these facile melodies and tired clichés?” It’s a question that’s at the heart of the album and that has continued to fascinate MacAloon throughout his career. How can such extremes—deep feeling and exaggerated sentiment, clichés and hard-earned insights—be so consistently juxtaposed in the lives of real people in real relationships?
“That’s the wonderful thing about pop music,” MacAloon explained to a British music journalist more than a decade after the release of Steve McQueen, after he’d apparently achieved a more peaceful rapport with his own emotional and aesthetic contradictions. “One can use the most banal phrases and still give them dignity, which they otherwise would never achieve. Take songs such as ‘The Mystery of Love’ or ‘Life’s a Miracle’ [from 1997’s Andromeda Heights]—just platitudes. If I’ve succeeded in making them bigger than real life, I’ve hit the target.”
Throughout Steve McQueen, McAloon makes things both bigger than and somehow truer to life by showing how language, like love, often breaks down in the lover’s attempt to communicate passion and regret, leaving him grasping desperately for whatever clichés, banalities, and other verbal straws happen to be nearby. On “Horsin’ Around,” the confessions of a guilt-ridden narrator quickly tumble from offhand cleverness (“It’s so unsightly to walk from her arms so lightly”) to virtually monosyllabic despair and self-contempt (“I / deserve / to be / kicked / so / badly”), all tied up neatly but futilely by the chorus’s silly verbal hook (“Horsin’ around / Horsin’ around”). With each repetition, the words sound a bit more fragile and closer to despair.
On “Goodbye Lucille #1,” McAloon plays the role of seasoned mentor, using every trick (and every cliché) in the book to comfort and cajole the song’s recently jilted lover. Against a shimmering, descending vibrato of synthesized guitars, the first verse kicks off with a litany of smooth, reassuring platitudes (“There is a time for tears / You won’t make it any better / You might well make it worse / I advise you to forget her”), punctuated by a classic pop chorus:
Life’s not complete
Till your heart’s missed a beat
And you’ll never make it up
Or turn back the clock
No, you won’t
No, you won’t
No, you won’t
As the vocals heat up on the following verses, the words become more strained and less predictable, as the singer allows his own cynicism and self-hatred to overwhelm his original concern for the heartbroken young lover on the other end of the song. On the last verse, the hushed “Ooh-ooh, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny” rejoinder that follows each line has been transformed from a sweet caress to a contemptuous smirk. On the final phrase of the final chorus (“No! You won’t!”), McAloon’s whispered lead vocal suddenly explodes into a hysterical, clench-throated screech. It’s an exhilarating, totally unpredictable moment that simultaneously shatters and perfects all the lushness and tenderness that preceded it.
The best of the lot is “Desire As,” an elegant, minimalist six-minute confession that opens with the repeated phrase:
I’ve got six things on my mind;
You’re no longer one of them
I’ve got six things on my mind;
You’re no longer one of them
At first the song comes across like an art-pop update of “You’re So Vain,” a jilted lover’s unconsciously ironic ranting. But things get stranger and more complex as McAloon begins to weave other lyrical themes in and out of the slow, shimmering, near-static progression of synthesized keyboards and guitars.
In whose bed you’re gonna be,
And is it true you only see
Desire as a sylph-figured creature who changes her own mind?
It’s perfect as it stands;
So why then crush it in your perfect hands?
As the music swells, McAloon’s breathy, mike-caressing vocals gradually blur into a halting, off-centered round, and the words begin to turn in on one another. Suddenly it appears that the song is addressed not to an unfaithful lover, but to the singer himself. And it’s not just himself whom he’s indicting, but the ubiquitous desire that has shattered him into fragments of ambivalence, regret, and self-contempt. Desire isn’t going down without a fight, however. As the song continues, the lover’s indictments are repeatedly mirrored back at him in the same words in which they were delivered. It’s a gorgeously solipsistic mess of self-doubt and self-absorption—and utterly true to life. It’s also vintage Prefab Sprout, an exquisitely achieved but ultimately fragile balance of subtle emotion, strained sentiment, and surrealist imagery, all posing as ethereal mainstream fluff.
Paddy McAloon and his brother Martin grew up in the village of Witton Gilbert, in Durham County, England, during the 1960s and early 1970s. They formed Prefab Sprout in 1976 in Newcastle (where Paddy was attending the local polytechnic school), with classmate Michael Salmon on drums. The band was conceived strictly as a vehicle for Paddy’s original compositions, which from the beginning were musically eclectic, absurdly ambitious pop tunes. Paddy’s goal was to fashion an ongoing repertoire of songs with the emotional complexity and musical sophistication of his heroes: George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Stephen Sondheim, Lennon/McCartney, Brian Wilson, and Marvin Gaye. And he has never been shy about acknowledging either the scope of his ambitions or his confidence in his ability to achieve them.
“I know I’m probably the best writer on the planet,” he boasted to a music journalist in an interview printed shortly after the release of Steve McQueen. “Seriously. Seriously. I just know it! No one even knows half the things I’ve written. It’s an awful thing to say and I never say it to anyone, but I know that on my day—who are my rivals?”
In spite (or perhaps because) of McAloon’s outspoken self-confidence, the Sprouts struggled for attention their first several years of existence. In the early 1980s, the band enjoyed limited success with the release of a couple of critically acclaimed singles (“Lions in My Own Garden” and “The Devil Has All the Best Music”), before finally releasing their first album, Swoon, in 1984.
It was only with Steve McQueen—and his collaboration with producer, multi-instrumentalist and synth wizard Thomas Dolby—that McAloon finally found a musical setting to bring the subtleties and textures of his compositions to life. The two had become friends a year earlier, after Dolby praised Swoon (which, in spite of its top-twenty showing on the UK charts, had generally been treated impolitely by the British press) to an interviewer. With his wall-to-wall synthesized embellishments of the band’s traditional instrumental delivery, Dolby gives the recording a richness and grandiosity that perfectly complement McAloon’s fascination with overstatement and magnified emotion. At the center of everything are the vocals, with Dolby using synthesized effects to blend McAloon’s understated crooning and Wendy Smith’s fragile soprano harmonies into a dense, ethereal chorus. With its synthesized drones, echoed percussion, alternate tunings and tight harmonies, the album achieves the lush, claustrophobic beauty of pop classics like Pet Sounds and Odessey and Oracle. For my money, it’s the only pop recording of the past forty years that unquestionably belongs in that company.
In the years following Steve McQueen, the Sprouts released several critically acclaimed albums (most noticeably 1988’s From Langley Park to Memphis and 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback), along with two separate greatest-hits compilations. Interestingly enough, given his earlier condescension toward country music, the Sprouts’ most recent release, 2001’s The Gunman and Other Stories, was a rather straightforward collection of country-inspired ballads, with little of the lyrical or musical irony normally associated with the band.After more than twenty years, Steve McQueen (originally released in the U.S. as Two Wheels Good due to a dispute with the McQueen family) remains the band’s triumph. In addition to its eleven original tracks (newly remastered by Dolby), the 2007 rerelease of the album includes a separate disc featuring acoustic versions of eight of the original songs. MacAloon’s vocals are fuller, deeper, and more direct this time around, forcing previously buried lyrical gems (like the bitter closing lines from “Bonny”: “Save your speeches / Flowers are for funerals”) proudly to the front of the mix. Altogether, it’s a stunning achievement—and, far and away, my favorite release of the year.
David Shirley and his trusty pickup truck, Old Blue, currently divide their time between Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, Mississippi.