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Prefab Sprout
Let's Change The World With Music Iain Moffat , September 21st, 2009 07:41

Not long after the Stone Roses had finally graced us with Second Coming, the NME ran a piece trying to round up the rest of the well-you're-taking-your-time brigade. Alas, since most of them were well and truly MIA at that point, it made for astoundingly non-committal reading. Kevin Shields gave no indication that he planned on returning to the Creation fold just in time for its last release, for instance, while Green Gartside failed miserably to mention that he was hoping to record anything Mercury-nominated at some stage; and Kevin Rowland let us all down with the absence of any quotes containing the phrases "spoken word Whitney covers" or "shimmering camisole at Reading". Paddy McAloon, by contrast, promised rather a lot: one of the all-time great five-album opening gambits may have faded into the distance by then, but he was, he said, working on a further five simultaneously, and what's more he was setting out to entirely re-map the musical cosmos (or words to that effect). 14 years and a couple of false starts later, he may have confined himself to a single disc, but — at last! — it's time to let the cosmic cartography commence.

You can tell this is supposed to be the important Prefab album, since not only is Paddy presenting himself more shamanically than ever, he's also written an essay in the liner notes detailing his fixation on Brian Wilson's Smile, which is probably even more instructive than intended, for a number of reasons. Firstly, as he implies, his endeavours to place himself in that sort of mindset may well have contributed to the fact that none of his regular collaborators appear here at all; secondly, he spends precious little — if any — time focusing on the musical rather than the mythological merits of said album; and finally, and most significantly, he's getting all worked up about a record that, when it finally appeared, could never have sounded as ace as it did in its creator's or his followers' imaginations. It must be said, the issues at play here are worryingly similar.

McAloon's studious hunt for some Other ends up leading him down some predictable and strangely prosaic paths. "God's a proud thundercloud" may have been a charmingly cartoony image in 'Nightingales', while the iconic poignancy of 'Pearly Gates' and imaginative potency of 'Michael' all hold up; but this time around he's made an album that, at times, even Ned Flanders would decry as a bit on the Jesusy side — particularly when it opens, ill-advisedly, with a booming divine pronouncement. Moreover, you could argue that the material here would be better able to reach transcendence were Wendy Smith — always a performer with a keener affinity for the sublime than her frontman — still present; although this in itself is hardly entirely damning. Slightly more of a worry is the portentousness with which McAloon approaches his other concerns, namely the glory of Love (risky given just how many definitive treatises on the subject he's given already) and the vitality of Music (which is often reduced here to the consensus canon, sadly). It's not that these aren't incredibly important subjects, but there's something of a sledgehammer adherence here to what's effectively a sauceless thematic retread of the oeuvres of Prince and Madonna.

But, wrestled away from the problems its conceptual and historical baggage bestow, is there any actual magic nestling here? Perhaps a touch frustratingly — although rather excellently for anyone unfamiliar with previous Sprout outpourings — the answer's more positive than you might expect. The gentle grace of McAloon's voice still soothes satisfyingly, and his celebrated turn of phrase has not abandoned him: his wide-eyed delivery of the delightful line, "Who's my hero? The unnerving, unswerving Irving Berlin" in 'I Love Music' is an absolute joy, and, inevitably, 'Last Of The Great Romantics' is a lyrically bejewelled creature. And although the production often harks back to his late-80s heyday, his search for the musically sumptuous yields terrific dividends in places: 'Earth, The Story So Far' takes flight over a backing of lachrymose piano, broad-shouldered, comforting bass and marginally premature sleigh bells; 'Falling In Love' teeters on the theatrical but navigates the ensuing perils beautifully via its lung-tickling fragility, restrained harpsichord and yearning harmonica.

There is, thankfully, one track where Paddy's ambition and abilities come together to blissfully brilliant effect. 'Meet The New Mozart' picks up wonderfully where the role-playing of 'Jordan' (especially its Jesse James tributes) left off, with sharp, rueful ruminations that are and a smorgasbord-like musical construction that might actually include the kitchen sink somewhere around the halfway mark. It crackles with a restless invention. That this occurs at all is cause for celebration; and, gauche though it can be, Let's Change . . . is a notable retreat from the jaw-dropping juvenilia that blighted 2001's The Gunman And Other Stories. Nonetheless, anyone anticipating McAloon: The Comeback proper might have a bit of a wait on their hands just yet.