I Trawl the Megahertz (remastered) - Prefab Sprout (Sony)
Forget everything that you think you know! Forget the lachrymose 'When Love Breaks Down', forget the smart alec lyrics, forget the witty swipe at Springsteen ('Cars and Girls'). And most of all, please forget '...hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque'.
I say this for two reasons. The first is that although I have always adored Paddy McAloon, I frequently feel that my enthusiasm for his genius is not widely shared and second, and most importantly, 'I Trawl the Megahertz' is one of the most unconventional, subtlety dramatic and heart-tuggingly beautiful albums that you are likely to hear.
The album opens with the twenty two minutes of 'Megahertz', it's a late night monologue from a forlorn woman, she's ruminating ('I'm telling myself the story of my life, stranger than song or fiction...), her reflections are raw, her heartache palpable. As she talks, McAloon's simple, repeating melody is augmented by Ravel like sweeps of strings, gentle guitars and a horn section that creates a noirish melancholy - the loneliness of Gerald Presesncer's fuglehorn is overwhelmingly sad. If this was a film, it would be shot in black and white, the pavements would wet with rain.
The inspiration for the piece came whilst McAloon spent his time listening to short wave radio broadcasts, phone-in shows and audiobooks whilst convalescing from surgery on his detached retinas. The on-air confessionals became the basis for the project, amongst the waves of woe, one line in particular stood out - as a mother telling her children 'Your daddy loves you very much, he just doesn't want to live with us anymore'. The line is used towards the start of 'Megagertz' and it's from here that a collection of poignant and fragmented reflections emerge. The narrator (performed by Yvonne Connors), trawls through her haunted memories, her philosophical observations and poetic glimpses of love ('...from an acorn of interest, I will cultivate whole forests of affection'). It frequently feels like eavesdropping on someones intimate stream of consciousness. It is more akin to a short story than a piece of popular music. As with other intriguing literary creations, you wonder about her back story - What happened to her marriage? Why is she in Paris? Where are her children?
After the drama of the opening piece, it may seem that the eight short works that follow are less substantial. They're not. The six instrumental pieces open with the exuberant swoop of strings, brass and woodwind of 'Espit de Corps', it's like an Aaron Copeland ballet, bursting with wild west imagery. 'Fall From Grace' and 'We Were Poor...' moves into an introspective, more jazz tinged, territory and the minimalist keyboard phrases of 'Orchid 7' are reminscent of Philip Glass.
There's a return to the world of radio phone-ins on the mournful 'I'm 49' where snatches of conversations between a heavy hearted divorced man and on-air therapists are mixed together over the meditative soundtrack. Maybe he's the ex-partner of the woman we met on 'Megahertz'. Maybe.
The sadness of the album takes another direction on 'Sleeping Rough'. Over a sorrowful string arrangement, McAloon makes his only vocal contribution to the record, and it's devastating: I'm lost...' he repeats and you feel his bewildered isolation. It's a tragic moment.
'I Trawl the Megahertz' was originally released in 2003 as Paddy McAloon's solo album. Since then his health has gone through further upheavals with his suffering from Meniere's Disease (an inner ear disorder that causes dizziness and hearing loss). He is now the sole member of Prefab Sprout. His musical output is, understandably, sporadic. It makes sense that this album is re-released and, by using the Prefab name, may find a wider audience.
In a musical career that has included many surprising gems, this may be regarded as McAloon's finest work. It is a portrait of solitude, of what may have happened to those young romantics after love finally broke down. It deserves to be heard.
Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.