the leak of this album some weeks ago, I was really shocked to see that it had become one of the most visited posts in this blog (in fact it is, by now, the second most visited post ever, with almost 4,000 visits at this time). So it is obvious there is actually a big interest on the new music from Paddy McAloon/Prefab Sprout, contrary to my own, low expectations.
I have been thinking for a while if I should post a review of this album, given its status as fully unofficial release, and given the complete lack of information we have on the way it was leaked, and on the possible plans of Paddy for these songs.
Eventually I decided I will post such a review, since in internet, something that has been leaked, is out there to all effects, good or bad. I'm pretty convinced that Paddy must be rather unhappy about this leak, but at this point there's nothing we can do about.
So, before going into any detail, please let me state from scratch (for the improbable case that Paddy ever reads this humble review) that I am a longtime follower of Paddy McAloon/Prefab Sprout, and that I think Paddy is one of the few actual geniuses of pop music in the 80s. I own all of his albums (in various formats), and I deeply admire his commitment, his art, and specially the strong courage he has demonstrated in the last decade to overcome health issues to continue releasing jewels, such as I trawl the megahertz or Let's change the world with music.
In short: this review is not intended to infuriate Paddy. On the contrary, my intention is to express my admiration for his music, and to stimulate his work in music. Paddy's talent is way too big to let it forgotten on the side of the music world in this century. (And in case someone is wondering, no, I am not going to redistribute this album, although I think it is available out there in the jungle of internet).
Finally, some background: I know by memory all Prefab Sprout albums, Steve McQueen is the first vinyl I ever purchased (back in 1985, when I was 18 years old... ah, the glory days!). To say I love that album would be a huge understatement. And, in case it was not clear enough already, Prefab Sprout is one of my alltime reference bands in music, together with The Smiths and Scritti Politti, and of course together with Prince.
That's it for preliminaries. Now, let's go to the meat.
As I have written in my previous post on this album, it appeared out of nowhere at soundcloud in March 2013, and was only noticed (at least, that I know) in June 8, 2013, strangely one day after Paddy's birthday. This means that we only have a set of 128 kbps mp3 files to judge, and that we lack any reliable information on the track list of the album. Furthermore, we have no reliable information on the title: initially it was reported as "Trapdoor melancholy", but later most people refer to it by using the title of one of the songs, "The devil came a-calling". There are hints to albums signed by Paddy with those albums reported elsewhere, but there is absolutely no confirmation that this collection of songs is entitled this way. Update: as reported elsewhere, the actual title is "Crimson/Red".
Hence I will use the order of the songs, such as I have been listening to them in the last weeks.
Beyond the restrictions in audio quality imposed by a lossy format as mp3, I would like to say first that these recordings sound too polished to believe it was simply a draft recording to be later reworked prior to a final release. I might be wrong on this, and maybe Paddy is even more picky than we expect when he prepares a draft recording. Besides, I think the voice of Paddy sounds here younger than his current voice, such as it's displayed, for instance, in the acoustic version of Steve McQueen. Again, I might be wrong, but my ears tell me this is not a recording made in 2012 or 2013.
Therefore I think this is a recording in an advanced stage, made some years ago, and certainly intended for a commercial release, given the coherence in the sound and the quality of songs; furthermore, there is a clear potential for singles in several of them, which reinforces my feeling that this is an album almost finished. The only thing that smells unfinished is the keyboardish harmonica parts (i.e. Billy), which I expect would be replaced by actual harmonica in the final recording. Other than that, this sounds good enough and credible enough for a fully fledged, commercial album, with a careful, very well crafted production, and with a quality in the singing or the instrumental performance that has nothing to envy from past albums from Paddy. Having said all of that, I think that the master Thomas Dolby was not involved in this recording, or if he was, at least he restricted his usually superlative powers to create a detailed yet down-to-earth sound that perfectly fits the songs.
And the songs, the songs, the songs... they are magnificent! Maybe I am still under the aura of the huge surprise, but I have written before -and I keep on thinking- that this is possibly the second best album from Prefab Sprout, if we exclude "I trawl the megahertz" as a Paddy solo recording. And this is, for me, a tremendous accomplishment, since "Steve McQueen" is a masterpiece as it can be, with nothing to envy from the best albums from any band of any period in pop music.
To give some brief bruhsstrokes on the songs (and excuse me for leaving any analysis on lyrics for later):
Adolescence is in my opinion the weak song of the bunch; Paddy makes a passionate interpretation, but still I think there is a somehow lacking melody, and it reminds me of some filler material in albums from well known musicians when they are not very inspired.
Billy makes a sharp contrast, since it has a very catchy melody, and it would surely make a strong single in this album. The computer harmonica sounds a bit weird in the context of a simple, nice, attracting production, but the song flows nicely and Paddy's command with the voice and you get the feeling that this sounds a zillion times better than the crap you listen usually in today's charts.
Grief built the Taj Mahal is one of the true jewels in this album, with the classic, elaborate writing of Paddy in lyrics, and with a delicious melody enhanced by a tempo that builds up in a perfect manner. This is Paddy at his best: the phrasing, the emotion, the chorus, the originality... everything is there, there's his bold signature shouting aloud "this is Prefab Sprout!!". I just love this song.
Mysterious is the other obvious single in the album. It's a misleading, streamlined melody with a complexity hidden by the main lines, which stick to your mind immediately. It sounds fantastic (albeit again with that weird harmonica), and it reminds you of the best material written by Paddy in the past, without being overly reminiscent of any song.
And then we reach the crowning of the album, The best jewels thief in the world. This is pure pop perfection, every sound falls in the exact right place. In an ideal world, this should be a smash worldwide hit, and it's about the best lesson any pop star in the making might learn (Gaga and Madonna and other nobodies have their duties here). I can hardly imagine how to improve this work of beauty, although I am convinced that Thomas Dolby could do it. It has been stuck in my head since my first listen, and everytime the pleasure of listening is the same. Even the weird alarm sounds sound perfectly fine here, and you can't avoid to sing along, everytime, everytime... Paddy for president!!
The song giving title (?) to the album, The devil came a-calling, comes next, and it's a bit underwhelming after the unstoppable joy of the previous song. But still it manages to catch your attention. It is one of those whose precise, detailed, clean production make hard to believe this is any kind of draft. Icing on the cake, Paddy's way of singing, with plenty of nuances along the song, evidences once more he's the master of pop.
The dreamer is the third jewel of the album: there's an unmistikable piano riff, a classic overall sound, and an emerging grandeur which puts this song apart of most contemporary music. Furthermore, it plays with repetition in a charming manner, and succeeds in creating a rewarding feeling every time the riff is repeated. Did I write pop perfection already? " Where are your dreams ? ", appropriately asks Paddy.
The list of impossible things is one of those minor Prefab Sprout songs which would be major in any other band. In an album with many possible singles, this is another clear candidate, and Paddy's voice sounds in astonishingly good shape. I don't know who played guitar in here, but he did a beautiful work in combination with the fine melody.
The old magician spells classicity in every pore, from the beginning to the chorus to the last verse. I can almost imagine Paddy teaching how to write a pop song for newcomers while playing this song, and figure out their faces in wonder after listening to this song.
The final song, The songs of Danny Gallway, is an appropriate end for the album (even if we don't know if it actually ends this way). It's another case of inspiration deployed with a quintessential Prefab Sprout structure, different layers of vocals combined with exquisite taste.
All in all, I couldn't be happier about this album. The last "proper" Prefab Sprout album, The gunman and other stories, was a bit of disappointment to me, and later releases were either rehash (Steve McQueen remastered/acoustic) or old recordings. With "The devil came a-calling" I recovered all my hopes regarding new material from that genius of pop called Paddy McAloon.
So I hope this album will be officially released by the band: the sooner, the better. The current generation deserves to discover the full magic of a musician of the stature of Paddy.
PS: I use the same illustration I used in the previous post of this album, but let me stress that it is simply a drawing using Paddy's face, made by a fan (I think). In other words, NOTHING to do with the official artwork for this hypothetical release.
Update 1 (as of July 23, 2013): Since this review, it has been confirmed that this album will be officially released by Prefab Sprout, under the name Crimson/Red, on October 7, 2013, by Icebreaker Records, distributed by Warner; the official order of songs is also known.
Update 2 (as of September 2, 2013): The album title, Crimson/Red, is now widely known, so I am changing the title of this post.
Update 3 (as of September 26, barely one week before the official release of this album): Since this post is receiving a significant traffic, I would like to advice readers to take into account that this review was written in July 2013, after listening to the leaked album in mp3 format. At the time nobody knew whether this would be actually a commercial release -as fortunately will be the case- or just a working tape of Paddy, and absolutely no information was known regarding the timing of the recordings, or about the dates when these songs were created. This information is treated in some detail at the Uncut review I transcribed here.
Anyway, I am happy to report that I was right in most of my assumptions, with one exception: I though this was a recording made years ago due to the young Paddy's voice. Yet shockingly, that is his current voice, which remains in an outstanding shape!