Why have Prefab Sprout made a country album? But dang, it’s good, says Mark Edwards
It’s typical of Paddy McAloon. If anyone else had got Tony Visconti, the producer of T Rex’s string of hit singles and many of David Bowie’s finest albums, to take the helm of their new album, they might say that they were in awe of such a celebrated figure. But not McAloon. Prefab Sprout’s singer and songwriter says simply: “I liked the idea of someone being unfashionable.”
Realising that this may not be the best way to thank Visconti for his efforts, McAloon hastily qualifies his statement: “I hope Tony wouldn’t mind me saying that he isn’t the man of the moment. You see, I always think it must be strange, if you’re a hip producer, when people come to you. What do you think they want from you? Do you think you have a sound, do they want a No1 record because the last one was? They don’t actually want you at all -they just want the success you’re associated with. But with Tony, I have loved so many of his records: I was a huge Bowie fan in my twenties, and before that Marc Bolan.”
Prefab Sprout’s new, Visconti-produced album is called The Gunman and Other Stories, and, as we’ve been talking about Bowie, McAloon uses a Bowie-esque analogy to sum it up. “He called Young Americans his ‘plastic soul album’; well, this is my ‘plastic country album’.”
McAloon is dressed all in white; even his beard contributes to the snowy motif, a reminder that it’s a long time since Prefab Sprout raised the pop game with songs like When Love Breaks Down, Cars and Girls, and The King of Rock’n’Roll. He’s wearing sunglasses: not in search of cool, but because he has recently undergone a series of operations, having suffered detached retinas in both eyes.
If health problems go some way towards explaining why a new Prefab Sprout album is such a rare event, we should also remember that McAloon spends much of his time writing songs for other singers – including Jimmy Nail, Kenny Rogers and Cher.
These songs, originally penned for others, form the backbone of The Gunman. Perhaps surprisingly, the “pre-owned” nature of much of the material helps to make it arguably Prefab Sprout’s best album -certainly the most instant and accessible work from a writer who has, in the past, been a bit too clever for his own good.
“When you write for other people, you can’t be too cute,” says McAloon. “As a result, it’s probably the most obvious thing we have done. It’s taken me years to be able to like writing such simple songs. When I was a kid, I always felt that everything had been done before. So I couldn’t write anything simple.”
He laughs at the absurdity of his former attitudes, then recalls an anecdote about Burt Bacharach studying musical composition and being shamed by his constant tendency to write tunes when all his peers were dealing in atonality. “You should never be embarrassed if you’ve written something that people can whistle,” McAloon concludes.
The Gunman is a feast of whistleable tunes, as one carefully crafted, country-flavoured tune follows another. Wild Card in the Pack (originally written for Kenny Rogers) and Cornfield Ablaze explore love, When You Get to Know Me Better is a confessional song that any Nashville writer would be proud to have written, while I’m a Troubled Man is an apology to a woman who has clearly got to know him quite well enough.
The album also has more energy than we usually associate with Prefab Sprout. “I realised that a lot of my songs didn’t actually move, they just lay there over nice pretty chords,” McAloon explains. “Now, when I write something with a bit of get-up-and-go, I’m into that – lighten up a bit.”
Lightening up is all relative. McAloon still talks in awe of Visconti’s tales of Bowie turning up at the studio mid-afternoon, announcing that he had to leave for the theatre by 6pm, and bashing through two or three songs before the limo came to pick him up. “I thought, yeah, I could get into that way of working,” says McAloon. But you know he couldn’t. McAloon is one of life’s polishers. “Once you have your idealised shape of a song, you can’t then abandon it.”
At least he has the decency to feel ashamed of the long gaps between Sprout albums, one of which stretched to seven years. “Let’s be brutal about this – it’s embarrassing,” he says. “That amount of time would have encapsulated all that was significant about Lennon and McCartney.”
Prefab Sprout is now effectively just Paddy, his brother Martin, and a string of New York-based session men. Among these was the guitarist Carlos Alomar, a longtime Bowie sideman whom McAloon brought in to give an urban edge to his reworking of the traditional song Streets of Laredo.
“He came in and played something before the tape was rolling, yet it landed perfectly as the lead-in to the track, and it’s still there. I said to him: ‘Do you ever have bad days where the ideas just stop?’ He said: ‘Not really.'” McAloon laughs -a hollow laughter that makes it clear that he’s more familiar with bad days than Alomar.
Another stellar player brought into the sessions was Eric Weissberg, the banjoist whose two most famous accomplishments are Dueling Banjos and his work on the sessions for Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Weissberg adds a solo to McAloon’s version of Cowboy Dreams, one of the songs here originally written for Jimmy Nail. “Eric came down from Woodstock,” says McAloon. “It was Hallowe’en, and he had to hurry back home because he was hollowing out pumpkins for his kids. So he just breezed in and out.”
Again, it’s an approach to work that you feel McAloon envies but couldn’t replicate. Still, the fact that he has indeed lightened up a lot on The Gunman is demonstrated by the fact that he allowed Visconti to mix the album. “Just for once,” McAloon says, “I thought I’d accept that perhaps someone else might have a better idea than me how to do things.