Claude French, Compact Magazine – August 2001

“HOLD ON TO YOUR VISION”. This could be Paddy McAloon’s motto, as the leader of Prefab Sprout returns with a new work, “The Gunman and Other Stories”, in which he revisits his fascination with American cultural icons. After the Elvis of “Jordan”, we now find him exploring the myth of the cowboy and an American West that is more fantasy than real. In what he calls “a vaguely conceptual album,” McAloon strives “to debunk and idealise a universe that’s foreign to me, but at the same time familiar, because I’ve always travelled in my imagination.”

As he himself explains, the album “amalgamates different elements, establishing a tension between traditional concepts of “gun culture” and new elements taken from hip hop as in “Streets of Laredo”. In this regard, “taking a traditional song and transcending it amplifies and updates the mythic dimension of the American West.”

The clichés of the western are therefore deliberately magnified, dramatised as if to demonstrate that he is not falling into one himself; “Cliché is the most important element. It’s what allows you to maintain a balance between stereotype and the poetic. Using it as is means I don’t fall into it. It’s an anchor which allows a collection of this type of lyrics to be hyper-romantic but touching at the same time.”

The singer also seeks to establish a parallel with Greek mythology. “You can find the same elements in both worlds: solitude, destiny, failure. In that sense I try to bridge the gap between high art and the so-called popular culture. Elvis is a modern myth, his failings reflect back on ourselves. It’s quite magical that he is both present and absent at the same time.”

But accessibility carries the risk of lowest common denominator. So what is the constraint popular culture imposes? “People often tend to take what I say literally. It’s to counteract the commonplace that I try to make my lyrics abstract and ethereal. This stripping back allows a more dramatic and intense space and thereby carries all the drama of the Western in an unexpected way.”

It was the same idea that led McAloon to employ Tony Visconti as producer. “It was intuition, he knows how to combine pop music with sophistication, as his collaborations with Bowie and T Rex demonstrate. He knew how to add an arty aspect to my ideas, and also as an American he understood that this was not a traditional country and western album.”

In more concrete terms, Visconti allows “a deliberate dependence on traditional processes such as narration, suspense, everything that’s part of a “redneck” culture, which he then allows me to go beyond by adopting my more impressionistic approach to the arrangements.” From this universe that might seem too fragmented or artificial, the leader of Prefab Sprout then works to conceive a consistent vision: “I always start from an idealised vision, lyrically or musically, and I put demos together that are very detailed. The computer lets me work on up to 60 tracks, as if I wasn’t going to use a producer. Then I wrap real instruments around that, it’s the only way of dealing with the traditional form.” So a “sort of road album” is conceived in which each track features an archetypal character: the gunman, the clairvoyant, the loser, etc, stylised to the extreme, but in which are found elements of “Western Imagery”. So “The Gunman…” is anything but a bombastic and bloated concept album: “My vision of the world is really quite sober. This is what allows me to combine these elements in a way that seems consistent, without it seeming forced or even borrowed…”

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