During my years on the ‘net, I’ve been a member of various E-mail lists and participated in countless discussion forums, and if there’s one recurring theme that never fails to rankle me, it’s when people so emphatically hold up an artist’s early work as the gold standard of their career that they refuse to acknowledge their later albums as being anything other than complete and total dogshit.
There’s a statistical likelihood that most of these people will fall into one of two categories: Elitist Dickheads or Old Fogies. The Old Fogies at least have the excuse of having been around since Day One of the artist’s career, and having been there when the early work was actually released, you can understand why they’re particularly partial to it; the Elitist Dickheads, however, tend to pay attention to the more pretentious music critics â€“ many of whom happen to be Old Fogies â€“ and presume the artist’s later work is crap not because they’ve actually heard it but, rather, because their favorite Music Bible tells them so.
Man, I hate that.
Maybe I’m just overly sensitive about this because I discovered the Beatles in the early 1980s. If this comment doesn’t provide you with a sufficient explanation for my sensitivity, consider this: any music geek worth his or her salt who’s in the midst of falling head over heels in love with a band is going to seek out solo efforts by the various members of that band. This means that, as a result of the time frame of my discovery, I ended up starting my solo Beatles collection withâ€¦
Don’t worry, I have neither the time nor the energy to sit here and attempt to compose a valid argument that those albums are the best that those guys’ careers have had to offer … mostly because they aren’t. (At ALL.) I’m just saying that it’s easier to find something enjoyable about Gone Troppo when you’ve never heard All Things Must Passâ€¦and even once you finally have heard All Things Must Pass, you don’t necessarily abandon the things you liked about Gone Troppo.
Okay, enough back story. Where was I going with this? Oh, right: I was going to defend the most recent — and possibly final — Prefab Sprout album, The Gunman and Other Stories.
Paddy McAloon, the singer and predominant songwriter for Prefab Sprout, had started going through a bit of a musical transition in the 1990s. He’d always been someone who preferred to play by his own rules, with little concern for what was likely to set the charts afire, but after the band released their first greatest-hits disc â€“ A Life of Surprises â€“ in 1992, McAloon went quiet for half a decade. When he returned in ’97 with the band’s next album, Andromeda Heights, the material was still as lovely and melodic as ever, but it was decidedly more mellow. (Only Paddy could get away with writing a song called “Electric Guitars” and make it work without it ever truly “rocking out.”) Critics were less than kind, making pointed mention of missing members of the Prefab Sprout sound, like longtime member Neil Conti and producer Thomas Dolby, and Paddy vanished again; by the time he revived the band for another album, he was married with child and had seen one of his compositions — a new song entitled “Cowboy Dreams” (download) — taken to #13 on the UK charts by Jimmy Nail.
In fact, there are several songs on The Gunman and Other Stories that were recorded by Nail. Hell, there’s even a song on there that was recorded by Cher! (What’s perhaps even more surprising is that her version (download) is pretty damned good.) Some might simply write this off as Paddy recycling existing material and trying to fashion an album out of it, but nah, he’s always enjoyed putting together a good concept album — like, to the point where there are reportedly several just languishing in a vault somewhere, including a Christmas album (Total Snow), one about Michael Jackson (Behind the Veil), and still another where every song is entitled “Goodbye Lucille.”
This time, he’s put together a tribute to the American West and the cowboys that trod the dusty trail, and the result is something that plays like a Jimmy Webb album. It’s nothing new to hear the words “Paddy McAloon” and “Jimmy Webb” uttered within the same review, since the former has been a fan of the latter for eons (with the pair even teaming up to perform a live version of “The Highwayman”), but The Gunman is the first time that the comparison has felt so effortless.
Thematically, the album holds together surprisingly well (aided, no doubt, by production from the legendary Tony Visconti), opening with the stage-setting “Cowboy Dreams,” then moving straight into “Wild Card in the Pack,” an ode to the rambling gamblers of the west. When it hits “I’m a Troubled Man,” though, you’ll find a song that someone really should’ve gotten into Johnny Cash’s hands.
God in heaven, heed my plight
On my darkness shed eternal light
I am weak, so weak, you are strong
I can’t count the times that I’ve done wrong
Please forgive me if you can
Lord, you know that I’m a troubled man
Lord, you know that I’m a troubled man
Appropriately, the next track blends a song Cash covered on several occasions with one of Paddy’s originals, and though you wouldn’t expect synths to work so well on a country song, they swirl through “The Streets of Laredo / Not Long for This World” (download) quite effectively.
While “Love Will Find Someone for You” is a bit too straightforward with its schmaltz, it’s easy to dismiss its faults when it’s followed by the best song on The Gunman. “Cornfield Ablaze” (download) begins with the sounds of a crackling fire, Paddy’s tale of a farm boy who finds romance and bails on harvesting the crops is full of the kind of great couplets even the Elitist Dickheads and Old Fogies will appreciate, such as when he’s addressing his new love: “You left Mount Olympus to find your soul mate / I left a scribbled note, quote, ‘Dear Pa, this here harvest can wait.‘” He also manages to successfully work two different five-syllable words into the lyrics (“agricultural” and “pyromaniac”), which is an accomplishment most anyone would find worthy of applause. “When You Get To Know Me Better” is arguably no less simple than “Love Will Find Someone for You,” but just the inclusion of line that follows the title â€“ “you’ll learn to love me less” â€“ make it a better song, and with couplets like, “If I sing you ‘Love me Tender’ in a way that you believe / Remember that I’ll mean it ’til the moment that I leave,” it vaults into the position of being another of the record’s most successful tracks.
From there, it’s onto “The Gunman,” lasting a full three minutes longer here than on Cher’s album, then to “Blue Roses,” an ode to the flower which will blossom in the snow before Paddy ever lets you go; the album’s closer, however, has been the topic of more divisive discussions amongst Prefab fans than just about any song in their discography. “Farmyard Cat” (download) is best described as an electro-hoedown, with burbling synths working alongside some fierce fiddling as Paddy provides what is arguably the most ridiculous line since he penned “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”: “I’ve got nine lives and I rhyme with mat / I’m a farmyard cat.”
No, The Gunman and Other Stories isn’t necessarily as strong or as groundbreaking as past Prefab efforts, but you’d be a fool to dismiss it solely because it doesn’t live up to Swoon, Steve McQueen or even Jordan: The Comeback. It’s a record by a songwriting genius who’s mellowed over the years, and if you’ve mellowed along with him, you’ll still find a fair amount to enjoy here if you simply open your mind and embrace the record’s charms.
As noted, there’s been no further activity from the Prefab Sprout camp since The Gunman and Other Stories, though Paddy did manage to produce a solo album in 2003, but if The Gunman raised the blood pressure of Prefab fans, I Trawl the Megahertz â€“ an experimental, predominantly instrumental affair with but a single fleeting vocal appearance (download) from the man who created it â€“ was enough to send them into full-fledged cardiac arrest. Love it or hate it, however, it was clear that Paddy’s creativity was blooming again â€¦wasn’t it?
At the time, journalist Craig McLean optimistically wrote of his fellow countryman in The Scotsman, “Paddy McAloon, this most singular of talents, seems to have found himself again, seems to be smiling. How do I know? Cos there’s a new Prefab Sprout album coming this year, too.” While McLean’s information had come straight from the horse’s mouth, Paddy apparently had a change of heart; despite assurances of this forthcoming new album, it never materialized, nor has any further solo work.
Granted, it’s not like Paddy hasn’t had his fair share of medical problems to keep him occupied over the years; first, he had to deal with his retinas detaching on him, and then he was stricken with MÃ©niÃ¨re’s disease, which caused him to lose hearing in one of his ears. According to a late 2007 update on the band’s most in-depth fan site, Sproutnet, however, “Paddy’s hearing has been restored and Martin is busy managing and producing new bands,” but it hasn’t spurred Paddy to get off his arse and do a whole lot. Still, he did manage to record new acoustic versions of several songs from Steve McQueen to accompany a Legacy Reissue of that album; indeed, according to reports from longtime fan Peter Whitfield in a posting on the Sproutnet forum, Paddy was even willing to tour behind the reissue — until, that is, Sony refused to pay for his brother (and longtime Prefab member), Martin, to accompany him on said tour.
Can you imagine that? We were thisgoddamnedclose to a Prefab Sprout tour, which would almost certainly have gotten Paddy’s creative juices flowing again, and Sony’s accountants screwed the pooch. That, people, is why major labels suck.
Well, among other reasons, obviously.