It’s been a quiet few weeks for Sproutology; I’ve had a four week sojourn in Malaysia introducing the new baby to his grandparents. And although I brought a stack of interviews to work through and post, somehow other things seemed better uses of time. Eating particularly.
Anyway, we’re more or less coming back on line now, just a week for work in India on the way back and then into the Christmas holiday when I’ve a lot lined up. And during the offline period, a Sprout dream led me to musings on what may or may not happen next with Prefab Sprout and Paddy – visions of Sprouts dancing in my head does seem a peculiarly “Night before Christmas” sort of thing I guess. In the dream, I had a long conversation I can’t really remember with Paddy, during which I do recall I recommended Sylvie Germain’s “Le Livre de Nuits” (wonderful book, mythic quality, about a family and the effects of various aspects of German invasions passing over their village). At the end I was quietly taken aside by Martin, who told me that on no account should I let anything slip about the new album, “Sons and Heirs”, which was being prepared for release as a surprise.
I guess that something of that sort is a possibility in reality. It’s clear that one of the things on Paddy’s list is a surprise release: he had wanted to do it with “Crimson/Red” but been thwarted by Internet naive people at Icebreaker. “Protest Songs” was a bit like that too. I think there’s something in him that would like to get something out without fanfare so he leaves the minimum of ripples around the promotion, like a skilled diver entering the water and then disappearing with barely a splash.
But reality isn’t scripted by what we’d like, and after the unpleasantly Faustian contractual obligation of the Icebreaker deal compelled him to do something he didn’t want to do, the smart money would be on him stopping now. After all, he’s nearly 60, he’s naturally reclusive in terms of his public persona at least, he has had his time in the sun, and why shouldn’t he just retire?
All the same, I suppose it’s worth pointing out that as recluses go he’s fairly prolific. If we take the 1990s as a starting point, there was new material via Crocodile Shoes and Cher preceding 1997’s Andromeda Heights, a tour in 2000, the Gunman in 2001, I Trawl the Megahertz in 2002, the Steve McQueen acoustic set in 2007, Let’s Change the World with Music in 2009, and Crimson/Red in 2013.
So while it seems that we’re perpetually hanging around waiting for something to happen, things do happen. Two or three times a decade in fact.
The question I guess is whether anything else will happen ever again. What would motivate Paddy to go into the studio and work on an album, given that the idea of pressing play and record simultaneously is something for which he appears to have a distaste bordering on the phobic?
Is he likely to be starved back to work? Doubtful really, there is what Andy Partridge once described as the ‘long tail’ of the music industry feeding him publishing royalties whenever a radio station plays one of his songs. The recent ad campaign for Boots will have netted him tens of thousands of pounds. Crimson/Red itself will have made him a fair stash. Recalling that Icebreaker was a tax dodge, not for Paddy but for high net worth individuals, it will have generated a very decent advance regardless of sales.
And anyway, the idea of monetising his stock of songs isn’t something that drives him. These songs are not ditties to be bashed out fast and sold on the streets for the price of loaf of bread. Paddy holds entire, wholly unrealisable visions of “how they must be” echoing around his head. He could no more knock out a quick and dirty version than a loving parent could send their child out into the cold Winter streets selling matches.
No, either they’re honed to perfection or not at all, and the dull upwards march towards inevitable failure to realise the vision is what stops downwards pressure being applied to the “record” button.
Because once begun, it’s a slog. When the slog ends, there is an imperfect end product to promote, and the limelight fizzes and crackles and comes full on, and he’s forced into interviews and distraction. The only cure for a finished product that has failed to hit the mark in the mind of its creator is the possibility of the next, unblemished work. Yet the necessary parts of releasing the current one prevents work on that from starting. The obliterative relief of a new project is out of reach.
Personally, my reading of Paddy’s character is that he’s deeply insecure about the value of his work – that’s one of the reasons he talks it up. I think that the relative failure of “Andromeda Heights” and “Megahertz” probably made him contemplate giving up completely. “The Gunman” was in his head I’m sure a tidying up exercise, but he was deeply invested into the other two works, and genuinely hurt by the failure of the world to “get” “Megahertz” in particular. I think that since then it’s understood for the amazingly poetic and beautiful work that it is, but artists sometimes move faster than their fans and critics.
And if we accept this thesis, we have another problem. Not only do you work for ages on something that isn’t even as good as you think it can be, and you dedicate a year to the project during which you’re unable to escape the depressing feeling that you haven’t hit the mark but still have to promote it, then when its released the critics hate it too and no-one buys the sodding thing and everyone mutters about jumping frogs in Alberquerque. Before “Crimson/Red”, that was the picture; it was interesting that Paddy blossomed during the promotion when he found that people genuinely loved the album.
But can that persuade him to bring his head over the parapet again? I’ve previously described Paddy as being like a hobbyist making model locomotives in his attic. He enjoys the process of engineering a lyric, a melody, of fitting the elements together so they mesh beautifully. He lives in his own head, it’s the simple pleasure of creating ordered beauty from a chaotic universe that drives him. He doesn’t need the external world, he doesn’t need a fan base, he just wants to fill his remaining days with beautiful creation.
So personally, I think we’ve reached more or less the end point. I’d love to think that “Sons and Heirs”, or something similar, was waiting in the wings and ready to go. I desperately want to hear “Total Snow”. I’d love him to do a musical setting of “the Book of Job”, which seems to parallel elements of his own life. I’m curious and impatient for more, but I just can’t see it happening.
Job himself, and his three lovely daughters, marked the end of their diabolically inspired trials by taking their instruments down from where they had been hung, and playing beautiful music. Maybe that’s some sort of omen. Let’s hope so.