For a brief period around 2002, Napster stopped being the go-to site for peer-to-peer piracy and started being a proto-Spotify subscription site. They were giving free 30 day trials, so I took one and sat for a month in the garden listening to just about every album I could think of, including a brief revisiting of Prefab Sprout, whom I’d abandoned between the release of “Looking For Atlantis”, and “Jordan”, having moved house and put the record player in the loft.
“Andromeda Heights” must have been the first album in alphabetical order, so I gave it a go. I listened a bit, skipped to the next track, and so it went on until I concluded, can’t have been more than 15 minutes in, that this was no more than sugary pap, and I must have been mad to have liked the band in the 1980s. And I went back to the Donnas.
That wasn’t a long way from the consensus view either. Despite a major promotional effort, and a rather tired and frail looking Paddy being wheeled out for some appearances and interviews, it wasn’t a success on anything like the terms of previous works. Not that it exactly flopped, it reached number 7 in the charts at a time when charts nearly still meant something, but it’s not the sort of album fans would reach for to impress people.
I always think there’s a sort of bell curve of cool about Prefab Sprout albums, peaking on “Steve McQueen” which pretty much no-one is embarrassed about owning, and which you can make a good case for being as cool as, say, anything by the Smiths. On that curve, which one day I will construct as an infographic, “Andromeda Heights” is way over on the far out reaches of uncool where even pareto fears to tread.
It’s never the case that a Sprout album is immediate, but the first thing that hits you about this album is a sort of dark blue velveteen muddle speckled with incongruity, Victorian dark wood décor touched out with splashes of synthetic canary yellow. Amiable enough, sure, but peculiar. You have Burt Bacharach sax sounds jumbled in with X-Files synth notes, and odd little instrumental interludes with instruments appearing from all directions to jangle and then disappear. It’s oh-so syrupy sweet, many of the lyrics are trite and mawkish. “Tell someone you love them, there’s always a way…”. Or slight word games stretched out infeasibly to whole songs, like “Steal Your Thunder”
You play that to someone who has been on a weekend Donnas bender, and it’s laughable.
There are some great songs on it which come into focus after a few listens. “Prisoner of the Past” is a wonderfully nasty song about destructive obsession, presciently Spectorish. “Anne Marie” is a sympathetic song about regretting a destructive obsession. “Andromeda Heights” is a lovely song about people building something beautiful together. The opening section to “Avenue of Stars” is glorious.
There’s plenty to like there, but even as I write this I’m filtering and not mentioning things, because the pleasure is a little bit attenuated by the idea I might have to justify liking it to the cool kids. Who honestly are never going to like it.
So let’s turn the clock back and see where it came from.
What seems to have happened is that Paddy fell into a bit of a dark patch after Jordan. He’d just come off a busy promotional period with the band, was heartily sick of the whole doing music for a living thing, and by all accounts folded in on himself and wanted to do nothing more than to sit in a room, writing songs.
And because he was the creative genius, whose name was whispered in hushed tones at the record company, everyone just let him. Anyone who knows anything about Brian Wilson knows exactly where that leads.
Somehow he produced the demos for “Let’s Change the World With Music”, and took them to Sony, to that notorious meeting where they didn’t simply just love them as he was expecting, but suggested something else. Muff Winwood, that kind and canny old bird, that voice of reason, devoted as he was to Paddy and his work, suggested that instead of developing complex multi-layered themes, he might just develop one idea well. Like, say, oh, for example “Earth the Story So Far” for the sake of argument.
And that set something off in Paddy’s head. And he spent the next couple of years developing “Earth the Story So Far” into a complex set of multi-layered themes about the human condition. Thirty or so interconnected songs.
But as he worked on it, a creeping realisation was hitting him: “Sony will never put this out… It’ll cost a fortune to record. No-one would buy it anyway”. Anyone who’s ever bitten off more than they can chew will know the feeling. There’s always idea that somehow you can fix it, tomorrow. By the end of the week. When the new synth arrives. But it runs away from you endlessly, and remember, Paddy had bills to pay and wasn’t exactly sitting on a mountain of cash. He was still under contract. There was a reckoning coming. There would be a knock on the door or a phone call, and he’d have to explain there was nothing to offer. He got stuck in a depressive loop, and came close to giving up.
Salvation rode into town sometime around February 1993 in the gruff and laconic form of Jimmy Nail, with the commission for some songs for “Crocodile Shoes”. The royalties from the million selling album that resulted, plus some cash from Cher for “The Gunman” and a few other commissions provided a much needed breathing space, a release from the tension of a never-to-be-recorded album, and the wherewithal to construct a recording studio.
And that, I suspect, was a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because he was finally freed of all constraints of studio costs, and could do anything he wanted. A curse, because he was inexperienced as a producer, and being able to throw anything he wanted into the mix, and being I suspect a little bit influenced by the Brian Wilson story, that’s exactly what he did.
So coming out of the back of a bad period, he opened up his boxes from under the bed and found some songs he felt connected to emotionally. Yes they were mawkish in parts, but they connected to how he was feeling. This was, let’s not forget, also the period where he was courting the future Mrs McAloon, and just before having his own children, and maybe there’s something of that in the songs.
He recorded the songs as demo’s, and then pulled in players to record them. Thomas Dolby turned the production job down, so Paddy was left to his own devices and decided the soundscape was the thing, using an early 3D processor to precisely place instruments and even individual drumbeats in different places on the sound stage. It was painstaking, and bonkers. But eventually, after applying a few coats of syrup, he had something for the label and could breathe a sigh of relief.
Now in truth, there’s not much difference between “Andromeda Heights” and “Crimson/Red” in terms of the way they were constructed from songs written over a period of time, rather than the high concepts of “Jordan: the Comeback”. Moreover if you look at “The List of Impossible Things”, it’s the same basic idea as “Life’s a Miracle” and lyrically quite similar. The difference is that in the years between the albums, Paddy learned sparseness, and also he was annoyed to have to record “Crimson/Red” so there’s a bit of acid there, some attack and swagger. “Andromeda Heights” is nervous and diffident, and makes up for that by wrapping itself in costume jewellery and stage clothes.
But the way to look at “Andromeda Heights” is as a doorway out of a very dark place. Paddy might have given up, but what happened next was that he went on tour. He released “Gunman” and “I Trawl the Megahertz”. Before slipping back again into his old ways a bit, admittedly, but it gave him a lever for a while.
And I ended up liking it a lot. Actually it’s the album I reach for when I’m a little tired and want a lush soundscape to escape into. The title song is, I hold, one of the very best Prefab Sprout songs. I love the instrumental interludes. I love the “undiscovered keys” moment in “Anne Marie”. It’s actually a good album all in all.
And the Donnas? Never listen to them these days. Strange how things turn around.