Monday 6 March 2017
Instinctively, your thoughts turn to One of the Broken, with its opening line: “Hi, this is God here.” In 1990, when Paddy McAloon recorded that song, he didn’t look remotely like God. But now, in 2017, if you were to imagine Him suddenly breaking His extended silence, chances are it wouldn’t be dissimilar to the manner in which Prefab Sprout’s 59-year-old frontman has resurfaced. The look favoured by McAloon these days is textbook biblical deity: a silver-haired man of seemingly advancing years with a beard to match. The manner of the recording also seems somehow appropriate. McAloon’s impromptu return, with a new song, America, looks like it was filmed on a phone in a place that could just about be anywhere or indeed nowhere. And, of course, few would disagree that, if there is an all-knowing, all-seeing creator out there, there has never been a better time for Them to send us a sign.
But although the first responses from fans might have you believe otherwise, the creator of America is visibly vulnerable to the vicissitudes which loom over all humans. McAloon’s eyesight is severely impaired these days – hence the enormous shades and the magnifying glasses that lie scattered in every room in his Durham home – and he suffers from tinnitus. For all the prescience of Prefab Sprout’s 2013 song The Devil Came a Calling – which depicts Satan as an unscrupulous huckster happy to feed his lust for power by issuing promises he has no hope or intention of keeping – the McAloon of America looks heartbroken at what has since come to pass. “America, America,” he sings, straining to reach the high notes, “Liberty welcomes everyone / Now she’s blushing in the sun … An orphan child exiled by war / She may become a doctor / And work among the poor /A scientist who finds a cure.”
Such global neighbourliness isn’t exactly surprising coming from McAloon. Since the release of 1997’s Andromeda Heights album, his faith in human empathy as the only thing that mitigates the unbearable brevity of our time here seems to be the engine of much of his songwriting. It reveals itself most transparently on Life’s a Miracle from that album, but you don’t have to scratch too deep beneath the surface to find it on List of Impossible Things, Grief Built the Taj Mahal and his astounding 2003 solo album-cum-fever-dream I Trawl the Megahertz. Perhaps what’s more surprising is the spontaneity of this release. When I interviewed him two years ago, he explained that he lives in a perpetual state of “the here and now”. That meant that while writing songs wasn’t a problem, recording them properly and releasing them into the world was harder to commit to.
Like perhaps his closest early contemporary, Green from Scritti Politti, McAloon’s love songs often acknowledged their own impudence in seeking to follow in the footsteps of songwriters such as Jimmy Webb and Stevie Wonder. McAloon sometimes casts himself as a true believer in idealised love who nonetheless remains aware of evidence to the contrary. On Blue Roses, from The Gunman and Other Stories, and Cruel, from Swoon, we’re listening to a protagonist perpetually on the verge of holding his hands up and admitting his chances of saying something about love that has never been said before are fanciful. And yet, the thing about McAloon is that he frequently does, often with disarming simplicity. “What you see in me / I will never know / That’s the mystery of love / But each time we kiss / Ignorance is bliss / That’s the mystery of love.” (The Mystery of Love from Andromeda Heights.) Both Jimmy and Stevie would have claimed that in an instant.
Like Green, he allowed himself – more out of curiosity than megalomania – to be co-opted into the world of pop stardom, abetting the process with an album (From Langley Park to Memphis) that made the job easy for radio pluggers at the time. Both artists emerged from the experience with a reluctance to fully re-enter the music industry, with its necessary promotional cycles and the commitments it demands from the artists on whom it depends. As a result, both have amassed demos of far more songs than they can ever hope to formally record in their own lifetime. Over time, the unfinished projects – among them, entire albums about Michael Jackson and Princess Diana – have become such millstones that he refrains from naming any others.
His ambivalence about the tension between the sometimes conflicting demands of the muse and the market has led him to strange places. The chorus of Prefab Sprout’s biggest hit, The King of Rock ’n’ Roll, saw its protagonist musing on the chorus that made him famous: “Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque.” In doing so, the song about an albatross became an albatross – something he had already realised by the time he attended an industry function and Paul McCartney told him that The King of Rock ’n’ Roll was to his back catalogue what My Ding-a-Ling was to Chuck Berry’s. An astute businessman like McCartney wouldn’t have meant that as a putdown – and neither was it taken as such. On Meet the New Mozart (from Let’s Change the World with Music), McAloon sang: “Meet the new Mozart / He’s in the bed where commerce / Sleeps with art / Who can blame him? / No pauper’s grave this time round / Will claim him.”
For all of that, it’s pretty clear that, as long as the annual royalties from earlier successes pay his mortgage, McAloon’s continuing reclusiveness shows no sign of abating. I would be amazed if America is a portent of a new album. It’s entirely consistent with what we know about McAloon that, without even stopping to set up a microphone, he filmed it on a whim and gave it to his manager (who uploaded it to YouTube) before he had a chance to change his mind. I suspect that, like many of us, McAloon had tuned into the radio every day, and with every new executive order from the White House, every new transmission of anti-immigrant rhetoric, imagined that someone somewhere must have written a song about it, and perhaps gathered together a bunch of well-known musicians to sing it. But we’re still waiting.
Perhaps no one found a combination of words and music that could hold a big enough mirror to what we’re seeing happening in America (and, of course, in Britain) right now. Perhaps there is simply no combination of words and music that can do that at this moment. And yet to watch one of our greatest songwriters setting aside the trappings of the studio and forlornly exhorting an entire country not to “reject the stranger knocking at your door” is heartbreaking in an entirely unexpected way. In 2017, McAloon seems unable to believe that it’s come to this. And neither, of course, can we. Therein lies the power of his newest creation.