“YOU SURELY ARE A TRULY gifted kid / But you’re only as good as / The last great thing you did.” So sang Durham’s Paddy McAloon on Moving The River: track 1, Side 2 of Prefab Sprout’s reputation-defining 1984 album, Steve McQueen. At the peak of his powers, this unique songwriter was already entertaining fantasies of decline: “And where've you been since then? / Did the schedule get you down?” Well, maybe it did. That and other things. Decline is back to dog McAloon on Crimson Red, but with the singer now 56, exiled from a business that once sought to harness his impulsive gifts, and suffering from sight and hearing impairments, it’s harder to laugh off. In The Old Magician, McAloon’s protagonist is a washed-up conjurer – “the tired act that no-one loves” who concludes that “death is a lousy disappearing act”. Elsewhere, in the ravishing Adolescence, McAloon hymns youth with the passion of one who’s seen its last remnant fall away: “Adolescence what’s it for? For keeping each nerve ending raw.”
“McAloon hymns youth with the passion of one who’s seen its last remnant fall away.”
The blaring tinnitus McAloon has suffered since 2006 appears not, however, to have dulled his ear for a tune. Crimson Red is his first album of new new music since 2003’s I Trawl The Megahertz, his first of conventional songs, as Prefab Sprout, since ’01’s The Gunman And Other Stories, and it is frequently miraculous. These are ingenious, affecting songs on a DIY recording budget, McAloon’s familiar alt-Broadway chord changes lent a sheen of classic Prefabs gloss by the mixing legerdemain of Blue Nile-affiliated engineer Calum Malcolm.
The subjects, too, are rich and strange. The Best Jewel Thief In The World is a creation only McAloon could summon, a professional cracksman at the top of his game, scorning the little folk ("what do any of those assholes know?”). There’s the "urbane” Mephistopheles of Devil Came A Calling who offers Paddy – OK, “Patrick” – “a mansion on Fellatio Drive” before returning, after 50 years of gravy, to claim his due. Bob Dylan and Jimmy Webb, or representations thereof, pop by, as if lending moral support to the songwriter at bay.
Music itself is now McAloon’s hot topic, a holdover from Let’s Change The World With Music, the house-informed album McAloon made in 1993 but only relinquished for release in 2009. And though music about music can smack tediously of self-justification, the payoff here is Billy, a delirious fable wherein music’s intercessionary magic is embodied by a discarded trumpet, stumbled across in the snow.
In the ’80s, McAloon might have scorned such a sentimental metaphor, but he’s not that smart aleck any more, not with life’s solaces now at such a premium. The gifted kid’s still gifted. He just grew up, is all.
Hear The Old Magician from the album here.