Plenty of artists would be thrilled about being feted on a 2-CD anthology, but Paddy McAloon, songwriter for elusive English ensemble Prefab Sprout, is as effervescent as tap water concerning Prefab Sprout: The Collection (Epic/Legacy), which spans from the group's origins in the early '80s ("Lions in My Own Garden") up to their 1997 album Andromeda Heights. "It's a slightly melancholy feeling," says McAloon of issuing "the old retrospective—because it means everything's boiled down to that. You're being judged on work that you did 10 or 15 years ago."
For most Yanks, mention of Prefab Sprout doesn't elicit even a raised eyebrow. If you were paying attention in 1984, perhaps you spotted the quartet in a Rolling Stone feature about emerging British bands and sought out their debut full-length, Swoon. Like his band's peculiar moniker, McAloon's earliest recordings struck an uneasy but memorable balance between manicured artifice and organic enthusiasm, making the disjointed "Don't Sing" an unlikely chart hit overseas.
But it was the group's 1985 follow-up, Steve McQueen (renamed Two Wheels Good in America for legal reasons), that cemented their reputation. Produced by Thomas Dolby, Paddy's latest set of ditties ("When Love Breaks Down") was still literate and sophisticated, yet also more accessible, born at the crossroads of the catalogs of George and Ira Gershwin, Michael Jackson, and Neil Young.
Subsequent releases were met with varying degrees of applause. The stylistic mishmash of From Langley Park to Memphis (featuring the Pete Townshend-inspired "The Golden Calf") gave way to 1990's Jordan: The Comeback, a four-part suite about God, Elvis, and ABBA that marked a return to form. Although BBC radio wouldn't touch the band back then, McAloon, 43, says that's changed over time. "We were too avant-garde for cutting edge radio in the '80s, and now we're sort of comfortably [ensconced] on their middle-of-the-road station," he reveals with a chuckle. "Without any fabulous tax-exile status success, we've gone from being outcasts to sitting in the middle of the Eagles and Joni Mitchell."
In the United States, where an act that sang about chess champions ("Cue Fanfare") and forgotten country stars ("Faron Young") weren't as bankable as Whitney Houston, Prefab Sprout fared less favorably. A reluctant public figure, McAloon did little promotion, and the band never toured North America. After a seven-year wait, stateside supporters who wanted to purchase the import-only Andromeda Heights had to resort to the Internet or driving to Canada, a notion McAloon finds especially irksome, since even many longtime fans feel it "wasn't that good."
"Thanks a lot," he sighs. "Some poor sod's gone all the way to Toronto to buy a bloody record and comes back with something that he thinks isn't quite right."
So what the hell has McAloon been doing during the better part of a decade spent out of the spotlight? He contributed to Crocodile Shoes, a TV show starring British comedian Jimmy Nail as a struggling country singer that spawned a best-selling album, anchored by Paddy's "Cowboy Dreams." His stab at crafting "something different" for Cher yielded "The Gunman," a 10-minute epic which the diva declared "the weirdest fucking song I've ever heard," although an abbreviated version finally made it onto her 1996 album It's a Man's World.
Along the way, he also wrestled with a "few personal disasters. I started to go blind in one of my eyes—the retina was detaching—but they fixed it. And then the other eye started to do the same. Within the space of a year, I had two big operations. At the same time, I was married and had two children. So you're in that weird position of having to do more physical work and chase people around even though your eyesight is failing. I was a bit of a wreck."
But he never stopped writing. "I've just not gotten around to making many records"—until now. Under the helm of producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex), Prefab Sprout recently completed a forthcoming album entitled The Gunman and Other Stories ("which is sort of a lazy reminder to people that you've got narratives happening in the lyrics") that includes not only more "cinematic" renditions of McAloon numbers recorded by other performers but also "a hip-hop version—and I use the term hip-hop very loosely—of 'The Streets of Laredo.'"
Prefab Sprout's last try for a hit single, in 1997, may have been entitled "A Prisoner of the Past," but Paddy McAloon refuses to become one. "I'm still an enthusiastic guy, and I like to look at the future. I think, 'You've got mountains of new material you've not recorded; some of it has to be better than the old stuff. You're not fashionable anymore, but there might be some gems that people who have ears to hear will think are as good as anything you've done.' That attitude sustains me."