In God’s Prefab are Many Mansions
Paddy McAloon once trained to be a priest. Now he’s a Prefab Sprout, but he still has his faith.
In a Merchant Ivory film, Paddy McAloon would be the gentle, cardigan-wearing priest who urges two shy lovers to make that twilight tryst. In the swishy musicals of the 1930s, he would be the book-loving millionaire who funds the off-Broadway show and comes up with the hit song at the last minute, when the original composer accidentally breaks his brain in a golfing incident. He wouldn’t get the girl, though – the supporting cast never manages to get the girl.
And as it is in the films, so it is in the music world – McAloon will never get the girl, or a No 1 album. Only the players in lead roles get those, and to be a lead you have to be a little bit mad; a little bit unresolved, a little bit TV-out-of-the-window-because-I-can’t-find-the-words.
McAloon has never had a problem with words, and coincidentally has never had a problem with irate porters discovering shattered Sony flatscreens in the carpark. Having trained between the ages of 11 and 18 to be a priest, written lines like “Hi, this is God here/Talking to me used to be a simple affair/Moses only had to see a burning bush and he’d pull up a chair”, and built his studio, Andromeda Heights, as an annexe to the house in which he was brought up, McAloon is rock’s exemplary Gentlemanly Scholar of Love. And Scholars of Love don’t tour.
“Ugh, no,” he says, alternately sprawling and pulling himself upright, as if being relaxed would be a little impolite. “I’d go mad, ha ha, if I had to do all that ‘be in the lobby at 9am’ stuff. You do the touring when you’re young and you want to drink and you’re desperate to prove yourself. We did it to get an album deal and we’ve got one now. So I don’t really find it necessary to go out and do something that I know would make me miserable.”
McAloon’s career with his band Prefab Sprout has been a singular one. Beginning in 1984 with the album Swoon , with its jazz inflections, complicated syncopation, hurtling ambition and bizarre time shifts, he followed with a couple of underground classic LPs before Jimmy Nail roped him in to write for his Crocodile Shoes album. Then Cher came knocking at the McAloon front door, cutting his nine-minute epic The Gunman down to four and yodelling all the way through it.
While Cher and Nail were out singing his songs, McAloon started stockpiling ideas. In the seven years following the 1990 God/ Sondheim/Elvis concept album Jordan: The Comeback he wrote five others, gave them all names – The Atomic Hymn Book , Let’s Change the World with Music , The History of the World , Zorro the Fox and Total Snow – and left them in a drawer, waiting for the right arrangers and impresarios to fund their dramatic scope.
Then the bills started mounting up, and McAloon decided to release Andromeda Heights , a pop album about life, death, love and, occasionally, God. “It’s not something that white artists tackle very often, spirituality and Him.” McAloon lifts his eyes towards the ceiling. “I’m very aware that people think you’re a religious nutter if you mention Him. Most of my God songs are on The Atomic Hymn Book , but I think he’s crept into a few of the things on Andromeda Heights .”
It’s difficult to describe quite how other worldly Andromeda Heights is. Tucked away in a village outside Newcastle, smoking cigars and raising his child, McAloon has veered off on a blissful right-angle to the current music scene. Everything sounds like a sunset as seen from an aircraft; all dreamlike Arcadia, voluptuous towers of cloud and stars sprinkled like salt on the velvet of the sky. The verses of Life’s a Miracle , for example, put a bittersweet lump in the throat, which the chorus effortlessly converts into heaving sobs.
“Well, it’s about how we’re all going to die, so we shouldn’t waste a second,” McAloon says. “I’m the king of futile idealism, and it horrifies me that people waste their lives mulling over the past, or worrying about the future. You just have to charge into life and get on with it. But make sure you don’t knock anyone over while you’re doing it.”