Paddy McAloon is hooting with laughter. “That’s the best question I’ve had in this entire round of interviews,” he says cheerily. “It’s so flattering and appalling at the same time.”
This jovial response is something of a relief. The question I’ve asked is an awkward one – but one that has surely crossed the minds of many Prefab Sprout fans in recent years. A preamble is required to explain it, so bear with me.
The last time this much loved British band released a new album was 12 years ago. The Gunman And Other Stories was a patchy, underpowered affair, lacking the musical or lyrical flair of their career highpoints: Swoon (their brilliant, idiosyncratic 1984 debut), Steve McQueen (from 1985, still their finest hour) or their most ambitious album, 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback, a lavish, sprawling pop symphony which included a suite of songs about Elvis Presley.
The disappointment of The Gunman was compounded by stories that McAloon, the band’s creative driving force, was building up a mind-boggling collection of fascinating half-finished albums that remained frustratingly unreleased – Earth: The Story So Far, a concept album that would tell the entire history of the world in music; Behind The Veil, a musical biography of Michael Jackson; an album of ‘secular gospel songs’ called The Atomic Hymnbook; and numerous others. The last time McAloon met the media, in 2009, he added a few more to this list (there are now around a dozen) and hinted for the first time that he was unlikely to complete, let alone release, any of them in his lifetime – partly because of the rate at which he was continuing to write (although still not release) even more new songs.
This time, the disappointment was compounded by the fact that fans had, out of the blue, just been treated to one of these numerous ‘lost’ albums. Let’s Change The World With Music was originally conceived as a follow-up to Jordan: The Comeback, rejected by the band’s record label, and finally released almost 20 years later, still in demo form, to make up for the fact that Prefab Sprout, at that point, hadn’t put out anything new in eight years. Even as a demo, it was an eccentric, inspired reminder of the wonders McAloon is capable of, and a vast improvement on The Gunman.
While McAloon’s notorious perfectionism partly explains the lack of new music in the past few years, a bigger factor has been his now well documented double whammy of health problems – first, failing eyesight, and then, around 2006, an attack of tinnitus which made the process of recording music almost unbearable. This was, clearly, a hellish period. “It wasn’t a matter of it inconveniencing my music-making,” he recalls now. “it was making me feel very frightened and upset.”
Today, at 56, he seems to be in better health, and typically good humour. “I’m a creaking gate, that’s what my in laws would say. There’s always something not quite right but you’re sort of functioning. At least I think that’s what it means. Maybe there are more unpleasant overtones I’m too vain to see.”
Still, that awkward question is nagging away in my mind and, finally, I can’t resist asking it: what will happen to all this other unfinished material if – perish the thought - he dies?
When McAloon has finished laughing, he offers something resembling an answer. “The problem is this. I recognise the issue, but I know what cassette players are like. They’re not great, so it would make a pretty fuzzy memorial. Essentially the problem with the stuff in the boxes is that if someone came to them they wouldn’t know all those little things that turn them from great ideas into great records.”
If it was beyond his control, though, how would he feel about these sketches finding their way into the world, however fuzzy – as was the case on, for example, Jeff Buckley’s posthumous album Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk? More laughter. “I would be literally past caring. I don’t care. I understand that need and I sometimes have it myself, but a lot of the fun I had wondering about Brian Wilson records is the unknown. Those other projects are all still there and I do still chip away at them, but it’s become a bit of a curse. I’ve been in shops and people will say to me, how’s Earth: The Story So Far coming along Mr McAloon? I become like a school boy dragged before the headmaster.
“But the other side of this, which to me is a comforting thought, is how much is enough? I’m not trying to raise a mystery unnecessarily but sometimes it’s better to wonder about certain things. Let me be sacrilegious – how many Dylan albums are essential?”
It’s a fair point. But for those devoted Prefab Sprout fans aching to hear new music, in any form, there is finally some good news. On 7 October, Prefab Sprout will actually release a new, finished album, Crimson/Red – the first since 2001. Prefab Sprout, admittedly, is very much a solo operation these days. McAloon played all the instruments on Crimson/Red himself, assisted by Scottish sound engineer Calum Malcolm (who also worked with him on Let’s Change The World With Music). Former Sprouts Martin McAloon, Wendy Smith and Neil Conti are all absent, as is one-time regular producer Thomas Dolby. However it is unmistakably a Prefab Sprout record, full of the lyrical and melodic flourishes familiar to those who love Jordan: the Comeback in particular. (“Adolescence, what’s it like? It’s a psychedelic motorbike, you smash it up ten times a day then you walk away,” is a typically arresting opening line). If the album never quite hits Jordan’s giddy heights, it’s the best thing Prefab Sprout have released since then.
Crimson/Red is, notably, a kind of ‘greatest hits’ collection of material from the various unfinished projects in McAloon’s vault, so at least offers a flavour of what he’s been up to all these years – although this was not the intention.
“I was working through 2010 and 2011 on another project of newly written material, but I abandoned that because I received a call from the people who were financing it, wondering where it was,” McAloon explains. Where it was, at that point, was about three years behind deadline. “I got a big bucket of cold water poured over my head,” he laughs. “I’d thought, it doesn’t matter about the deadline as long as it’s beautiful, but that doesn’t apply with lawyers.”
The fastest way to deliver an album, he decided, was to “cherrypick” songs that were already in a more finished state than the new ones he was working on, focusing on ones that seemed “reasonably simple: no endless sections, no sudden swerves”.
“If you care to mention a title I could roughly tell you when it was written,” he says. So for a while we talk through the tracklist. What about the opening track, a throwaway yet painstakingly crafted pop song called The Best Jewel Thief in the World? “I think I wrote that prior to my hearing disaster, 2005 or 2006. My BC-AD watermark, that’s how I view it. I’ll pull out cassettes and get nostalgia that both my ears were functioning.”
List of Impossible Things, track two, was written soon afterwards, and lyrically it shows, with lines such as “see what the blind man paints, abstract expressionist saints” signalling a preoccupation with the impact of ill health on creativity. The song, McAloon says, is about “making the best of what you’ve got, your voice or whatever it is. In some ways it’s an obscure song that I feel reluctant to pin down in a sentence but it seems central to my sense of what it is that I can do.”
The oldest song on the album, Grief Built The Taj Mahal, dates from around 1997, between the releases of Jordan and Andromeda Heights. Others evolved over time. Adolescence, a wonderfully vivid description of the emotional explosions of puberty, began as a song looking back on McAloon’s own teenage years, but later incorporated his feelings about being a father to two fast-growing daughters.
Among its other achievements, the album should end one of the odder rumours that had sprung up in recent years – that McAloon had found God – a rumour prompted by a rash of religious references on Let’s Change The World With Music.
“There’s something quite glorious about religious certainty as long as it doesn’t involve you calling up the inquisition and getting everyone to feel the way you do,” says McAloon. “It’s an ecstatic state of affairs. But I write counter to what I think. I was a bit bothered by one or two reviews that seemed to think it’s a religious record. It’s not. My opinions are very far removed from my records.” In fact, he says, one of the songs he had in mind for the new album included references to God, so he abandoned it because “I thought I’d already done that”.
“It’s a strange thing,” he says, warming to the theme. “I’m as easily put off by a great reception to a record as a bad one. I’m trying to record something at the moment, but when people really get keen about something it can put me off other things that I do. If you said to me that you thought all the lyrics (on this album) are particularly pointed and sharp it might make me go away and think the lyrics of the songs I’m writing aren’t quite so pointed.” He is, he readily admits, “a person entirely drenched in doubt”.
This could, ironically, mean that the more well received Crimson/Red is, the less likely it is that we’ll hear another new Prefab Sprout album in the near future.
“I try to avoid recording as much as I can,” admits McAloon, “because it’s the moment when all those hypothetical ideas have to become real. I hate to sing into a tape recorder because then I have to sing it again to see if it can get better and then I have to sing it again another 24 times. I just love to write music and write fragments of it, without me willing the connections to be there.”
And here is the great problem with being a Prefab Sprout fan. McAloon’s songs are precious, exquisite things, created from a deeply held passion for pop music. However, as you’ll have gathered, he’s not that bothered about releasing them. In the early days of Sprout, he has admitted, it was the ambition of his brother Martin, and the band’s manager Keith Armstrong, that propelled the band forwards. Now it’s just McAloon setting the timetable, it’s a wonder any music makes it out of his Durham home at all. “Eventually it will emerge as what it should be,” is how he describes the recording process to me. Which is all very poetic. But he also admits that this album is only coming out now because “I didn’t like the threat of legal action”.
Being a Prefab Sprout fan, I can anticipate what McAloon is going to say if I ask him whether he’ll play any live shows around Crimson/Red. I ask anyway, but I was right: the answer is no. He’s aware of fans’ frustration with this too, and tells me he spent a fair bit of time filming himself performing songs live in the studio, perhaps to put online.
“I thought it might be interesting, but I came up against my perfectionism,” he says ruefully. “Instead of having 40 minutes of me playing each song once, I have two hours of me playing Jewel Thief.” The footage seems likely to remain in the vaults for some time.
• Crimson/Red is released on 7 October. www.prefabsprout.com