For Prefab Sprout (and McAloon, along with bass-playing brother Martin, is Prefab Sprout) effortlessly produced one of the finest albums of the ’80s in Steve McQueen, and then repeated the trick in the ’90s with the sprawling, ambitious Jordan: The Comeback.
It was after the release of Jordan: The Comeback that McAloon started to talk excitedly in interviews of follow-up records he had planned: concept albums about a fictional superhero called Zorro The Fox, another one about the history of the Earth, and one about Michael Jackson.
None of these saw the light of the day though, due to a combination of record company indifference, McAloon’s perfectionist streak and some failing health problems which left him with impaired vision and loss of hearing.
Yet one of those mythical albums has indeed now been rescued. Originally recorded in 1992, the demos have stayed untouched for 17 years until engineer Calum Malcolm remastered and spruced up the tapes, resulting in Prefab Sprout’s first album for eight years.
It’s hard to believe that Let’s Change The World With Music is, in effect, an album of demo versions. Malcolm has done a sterling job, rendering all 11 songs gorgeously lush, with a certain poignancy in hearing the now frail McAloon sounding so young and vibrant. It sounds slightly dated now, but that’s an inevitable by-product of being recorded in the early ’90s.
Although not a concept album in the traditional sense, the vast majority of songs here are beautifully crafted numbers about the great redemptive power of music. They’re also typical McAloon, in that each song is instantly catchy and commercial while also boasting insanely clever arrangements and lyrics that are designed to be poured over and analysed.
Opening track Let There Be Music rolls back the years by featuring a funky house-lite piano riff throughout, while I Love Music is simply a delight – McAloon paying tribute to all genres “from Clair De Lune to that motherfucker Miles” before namechecking Irving Berlin, “Nile and ‘Nard, Pierre Boulez, guru of the avant-garde”.
There’s also the standout Music Is A Princess which has a similar theme – McAloon comparing music to that of a great love: “extravagant gestures are wasted on her, she’s a princess, I’m Oliver Twist”. In other hands, this would all be unbearably cheesy, but McAloon invests so much joy and wonder in these songs that it’s impossible not to be swept away with it all.
Yet it’s impossible, especially if you’re a Prefab Sprout fan, not to feel slightly sad at the same time. There’s an air of ‘what might have been’ over the whole enterprise, especially given the fact that McAloon abandoned these wonderful songs in favour of Jimmy Nail collaborations and recording theme songs to cosy Sunday night ITV dramas.
Yet Let’s Change The World With Music does the job of reminding us that McAloon can be a magical songwriter. Last Of The Great Romantics sees him singing about a man who “hears romantic music in unanswered phones, in the angry slamming of a door”, and it’s impossible not to think there’s a fair degree of autobiography in there.
All in all, it’s one of the most welcome comebacks of the year and, with so much more undiscovered treasure in the McAloon vault, it’s possible that we could be listening to many more of these gems for some years to come.