Posted by: Nick Walters | December 30, 2013

Prefab Sprout: Crimson Red

God – um, I mean, Paddy McAloon. No, I was right first time. Paddy=God.

This album is confirmation that Paddy McAloon is one of the greatest songwriters of all time. It’s not immediately apparent; on the first few listens, the cheap production is hard to ignore. The songs have a cloying, muzak sheen, and horns have never sounded so synthetic. You long for Thomas Dolby.  On further listens, however, this passes, and the songs – the lyrics, the arrangements – and McAloon’s genius become planet-sized crystal clear.

As an atheist, I was somewhat perturbed by the god-bothering nature of most of the songs on his last album, Let’s Change The World With Music. Thank, er, God (see photo caption) that this time round, McAloon is concerned with the earthly, human activities of love-making and song-making, but is equally if not more lyrical on these subjects.

It kicks off with The Best Jewel Thief In The World, a fantastic song and a hit single in a parallel universe. The music is brisk and bright and the production doesn’t harm it all that much, except for the rather shrill harmonica solo. Lyrically Paddy is as deft and clever as ever, though it is a shock to hear him say ‘what do those assholes know?’ The List of Impossible Things follows, a slower, more considered piece,  about the miracle of singing: ‘If your voice is all shot, it’s still the best one you’ve got / You’re a work of art that’s broken.’

Adolescence ‘crimson red’ gives the album its title, and is the most musically experimental track, all burbling brisk electronica and percussion, sounding so 80s it hurts. Here McAloon looks back at his youth and offers these words to sum up the teenage experience: ‘Adolescence, what’s it like? / It’s a psychedelic motorbike! / You smash it up ten times a day / Then walk away.’   Somewhat ridiculous, but containing a grain of truth? Grief Built the Taj Mahal is another slow number, and perhaps the least successful song here, though its theme of death and the hereafter is a nice counterpoint to the previous song.

Next up are the two best tracks which form the twin highlights (headlights?) of the album. The Devil Came A Calling is a brisk strum-along, a dark and dusty tale of a meeting with my namesake Old Nick. It is not a stretch to imagine Nick Cave singing this – and, considering that McAloon has often penned songs for others (Cher, Kylie, Momus, Jimmy Nail, etc) this is not at all outside the realms of possibility. It is a shock to hear McAloon say ‘fellatio’ though – wash your mouth out, Paddy! Side 2 (yes, I know) kicks of with Billy, the best song here, and a thing of such immense open-skied joy that it takes the breath away. McAloon sings about falling in love with such unpretentious sincerity that you get swept right up along with it.  ‘I’m in love with Susan, Bill / Her smile is like a fairground / I’m basking in the glow.’  Some have criticised the cheap synthesised trumpet sound but I think that’s the point.  The Dreamer follows, a very dark song, with bleak lyrics about lost dreams – again the sequencing is immaculate, the darkness here in stark contrast to the previous song.

The album closes with a trio of songs about singers and songwriting. The Songs of Danny Galway is about the revered Jimmy Webb, writer of MacArthur Park and Wichita Lineman and many others.  The Old Magician is perhaps an autobiographical song, about the failing powers of, well, an old magician – but it’s far too chipper to be melancholy, and contains the clever double meaning  ‘he’s lost all his illusions now.’ Chipper also perfectly describes the closing Mysterious, the music of which borders on the cheesy, but repeated listens diminish this. It’s all about Bob Dylan, but could easily be about McAloon himself:  ‘hobo jive on overdrive / Your energy is vast.’  And then it’s over, all too soon.

I hardly dare hope for more. But I do.

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