Paddy McAloon sits in a brightly lit, rather overwhelmingly modern Newcastle restaurant, sipping a lime and soda. He is dressed in white, and is studying a second-hand biography of some or other early 20th-century classical composer through the lens of an immense and ornate magnifying glass. The spectacular beard he took on tour last year has been trimmed, but he nevertheless looks the perfect picture of the grandly eccentric elder, and this seems proper.
Prefab Sprout’s imminent, and altogether gorgeous, seventh album, The Gunman & Other Stories is the Tyneside group’s second since1990, reinforcing the image of McAloon as a mystical ﬁgure who descends infrequently from the rareﬁed heights his muse occupies, modestly releases another record which shows everyone else how it should be done, if only they would listen, and then vanishes from view.
“I’ve just had an odd four years,” he says, when asked what he’s been up to since the release of 1997’s criminally overlooked Andromeda Heights a work, incidentally, of unassailable melodic genius and vivacious lyrical optimism that should be issued to every child at birth to serve as a permanent reminder of humanity’s nobler possibilities. “I hit 40, got married, had two children and three eye operations.”
It’s the latter that explains the magnifying glass. At 43, McAloon, has acquired the old man’s ailment of recurring retinal detachment. The traumas of the last incidence, a couple of months ago (“Painful? I thought the surgeon had left his scalpel in there”) are discomﬁtingly visible in his left eye.
“The guy who was wheeling me in for the operation asked me what I did, and I told him, and he said ‘Oh, I don’t like Prefab Sprout’… and I’m thinking, great, you know, he’ll probably be the last person I ever speak to.”
Over a lengthy lunch, McAloon is excellent company, spirited and funny, if easily tempted in-to pursuing tangents over great and exhausting distance. He seems genuinely perplexed by, and curious about, characterisations of The Gunman… as Prefab Sprout’s country album. “You think it is? Really?”
Really. Recorded in the New York state home studio of the one-time David Bowie and T-Rex producer, Tony Visconti, The Gunman. . . is built on country structures, haunted by lap steel guitar and massed strings, full of songs that could (and should) be sung by George Jones and Glen Campbell, contains a typically sumptuous version of the western standard “Streets of Laredo”, and is riddled with the sort of lyrical twists beloved of Merle Haggard (“When you get to know me better,” laments one chorus, “you’ll learn to love me less”).”
“I don’t even like those sort of titles,” McAloon laughs. “They’re punchlines. They’re cute, and they can set the tone for the “whole song, but as a stylistic trick, I think it’s a bit easy. I feel a bit of a fraud being questioned about this, because I actually know very little country music.” This seems an extraordinary statement. McAloon’s songs have always been suffused with a wide-eyed love of American pop culture and a profound appreciation of America s mythology: he named a song after the 1960s country icon Faron Young as long ago as 1985’s immortal Steve McQueen album, included two songs inspired by legendary gunslinger Jesse James on 1990’s Jordan; The Comeback which, in turn, was besotted throughout with Elvis Presley.
“Someone asked me last -week whether these songs were pastiche. And I thought that was a bit of a harsh term. I mean, in a sense it is pastiche, because I’m relying on my memories of what country music is, as vague as they may be — but there’s a general stylistic sense of what country is that allows you to write them.”
Five of the songs on The Gunman were written for Jimmy Nail, who prevailed upon McAloon for the soundtrack for his “Crocodile Shoes” series. A sixth, the title track, was written for Cher (“I’m told she liked her own singing on it, but she didn’t get it”). A seventh, “Wild Card in the Pack”, was written with Kenny Rogers in mind, but never sent to him.
McAloon’s exuberant passion for songwriting more than makes up for his professed lack of knowledge of this genre; like those rare sporting prodigies who can master a new discipline as easily as they lift a tennis racket, cricket bat or croquet mallet, McAloon has a preposterously easy facility with all varieties of song. Despite his sporadic output over the last decade, he writes proliﬁcally. Rumours exist of dozens of lost Prefab Sprout albums.
“They’re not lost,” he claims. “They’re written, but they’re not recorded. There must be at least twelve. They’re on different themes, some of which have more commercial potential than others.”
The albums that McAloon conﬁrms the existence of include a suite dedicated to Michael Jackson (“It’s called Behind The Veil, and it consists of songs in the style of Thriller, with titles such as “Mr Lightning Boots”), a Phil Spector tribute album, a musical history of the World called Earth: The Story so Far, a spoken word reminiscence from the perspective of a ﬁctional woman called I Trawl The Megahertz and a collection of novelty songs (The Gunman… closes on a piece of hyperactive electro-country Whimsy called “Farmyard Cat”, which McAloon included “because it was joyful, and you don’t hear that often”).
That public money continues to be squandered on such fripperies as schools, roads, hospitals and national defence while McAloon’s unheard library of imagined masterpieces goes unrecorded is, frankly, an outrage. McAloon, for his part, while equally aware and relieved that his days as a mainstream pop star are behind him (“I was much too nervous of how high things might go”), remains properly convinced of his own worth. He was, he admits, “terribly, bitterly disappointed” at the commercial no-show of Andromeda Heights. He sounds determined not to get his hopes up for The Gunman and Other Stories.
“No, I’ve given up,” he laughs, again. “In my bitter pride, I just think, bore them with greatness. That’s my new motto.”