Album Review: Prefab Sprout- From Langley Park to Memphis

Paddy McAloon is a human curio. Sixty-four years of age yet comparatively ancient in outward appearance, he sports long grey hair which melts into a silver beard of equal length. For a photo shoot with The Guardian he once sported a cane with a white globe atop it. While this may only be the singular instance of cane wielding one can attribute to McAloon, it’s an image that is seared in my brain; another addition to the aesthetic powerhouse the man is. It would be somewhat trite to call him an elder statesman of pop but with a visage like his, he practically yearns for the honour. What you see in contemporary McAloon is a man confident in his own image. One would have to be to pull off such an antiquated exterior and execute it with the same youthful bravado he does. Despite the strong anachronistic confidence that he portrays in this state, it is not where his power would be at its fullest. In fact, McAloon achieved world breaking confidence only once. He achieved it somewhere along the road between Memphis and Langley Park.

Prefab Sprout needed something to push them over the edge. Their debut album Swoon was a strong one; an indie-rock blueprint from which many bands magpie. While the instrumentation was appropriately sparse, it was McAloon’s hyper literate words and knotty melodies which beguiled. Perhaps somewhat too engrossed in being clever, Swoon nevertheless impresses to this day. The peak remains ‘I Never Play Basketball Now,’ a tightly wound pop song which shows his mission statement in the first lines: “I’m not looking to disturb you, just a little to unnerve you.” While Paddy was firing on all cylinders from the get go, it would take the amplification of his surrounding band to really streamline his writing into the machine it would later become. That amplification came in the form of Thomas Dolby.

Allowing the Mad Scientist of Pop to produce their second album in 1985 opened up Prefab Sprout’s sound into a cavernous negative space of romance and lost chances. McAloon’s writing was decadent on Steve McQueen, but not in the way Swoon was, swapping speed and tempo changes for lingering verses and wistful choruses, all pillowed by Dolby’s delicate yet transformative production. The odd synth line here, the ghostly voice of Wendy Smith, like wind through trees, there and the Sprout’s artistic identity was born. A unique brand of not quite sophisticated Sophisti-Pop, it would become their signature and Steve McQueen would become their most acclaimed album.

Strangely enough, the Sprout decided to go against their winning formula and Dolby didn’t return for all of the tracks on Steve McQueen’s sequel. It transpired to be to no detriment however. Dolby’s input was revealed to be a catalyst for McAloon. The raw materials for a massive, risky, career-defining and strikingly confident album were always there, Dolby just kick-started the reaction. The resulting product would end up being 1988’s From Langley Park to Memphis.

It’s no doubt a critique on America’s vapid consumerism, but the album handles its influences in such a deeply respectful way that the band come off reverential rather than insolent.
– Kieran Baddeley

Unlike the decidedly British austerity that defined their previous albums, Langley Park is steeped in American culture, a cauldron of genre’s reflecting the limitless possibilities of the American Dream. When writing songs for the album, McAloon’s ethos was best summed up with his own words: “a good, simple song is better than a half-successful, complicated one.” This move towards commercialism and a conscious streamlining of his writing and its coinciding move towards Americana is somewhat of an interesting insult. It’s no doubt a critique on America’s vapid consumerism, but the album handles its influences in such a deeply respectful way that the band come off reverential rather than insolent.

‘Hey Manhattan’ is a Broadway song that is so “on-Broadway” without actually being “on-Broadway” that it’s almost funny. ‘The Golden Calf’ is college rock refined, an Americanised counterpart to the British College rock the Sprout ploughed out on Swoon. ‘Cars and Girls’ is the most obviously indebted towards this reverence. The track was McAloon’s homage to Bruce Springsteen and McAloon twists and reinterprets Springsteen’s oft-trodden ground with a cheeky grin. He manages to reduce Springsteen’s body of work down to two words and refers to him as “Brucie.” Whether the latter is done diminutively or lovingly is up to the listener. However, the album’s most poignant line comes towards the end of the song and is perhaps the most romantic yet queasy line in Prefab Sprout’s discography. “Cause life’s no cruise, with a cool chick, too many folks, feeling car sick.” It’s one of those lines that’s so slyly simple, yet unendingly clever that one wonders why no one has thought of it before.

This move towards commercialism also brought with it new song writing techniques. The full band effort shown on tracks like ‘Faron Young’ from McQueen were ditched for more synthesised songs on Langley Park. McAloon began writing on keyboard more predominantly, with the instrument’s multifaceted nature allowing for the genre-splicing journey he was about to take. This approach can be seen mostly in the album’s Sonics where the gentle synth touches that littered the edges of McQueen were overhauled in favour of a full-blown acceptance of fakery. This is most evident in tracks like the ‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ where the synths hit you like a mallet and ‘Knock on wood’ where the synthesised groove is the song’s only instrumental factor. Particularly noteworthy about these examples is they were two of the four tracks produced by Dolby. While the Sprout got rid of him as a permanent overseer, the almost symbiotic way that Dolby knew what McAloon wanted from the new album makes it even less startling that the next one, Jordon: The Comeback was so monumentally good.

Despite this overhaul, McAloon remains a writer whose songs require multiple listens to appreciate the little quirks. ‘Enchanted’ is a song built off idiosyncrasies, whether it’s the winking and plodding synth beat or the way McAloon sexily intones “time to learn, tiger stretch tiger burn.” Elsewhere, “When you’re scared of down and out, you camouflage your fear, with a fakin’ D.J. smile, and maybe some boogie dancin’” is one of his greatest lines, with a healthy lashing of Elvis inhabiting his voice as he stretches out the “boogie” and finishes the album on its strongest note. In fact, ‘Venus of the Soup Kitchen’ may well be the perfect Prefab Sprout song: funny, extraordinarily clever, pretty, romantic and with a point of view seldom seen in pop music. While ‘I remember that’ may strike you as yet another 80’s ballad on first listen, you will soon be stunned by its beauty. It’s pure ear nectar, from the first twinkling notes to its fanfare of trumpets near the song’s crescendo. When the song does indeed break, it’s the intense choral “did you feel it too?” which crashes onto the beach in a heap of desperation.

Perhaps this is just a convoluted way of saying the album actually sounds incredible. The album is a luscious and succulent bed of deep production and clean sonics.
– Kieran Baddeley

Perhaps this is just a convoluted way of saying the album actually sounds incredible. The album is a luscious and succulent bed of deep production and clean sonics. ‘I Remember that’ as I’ve mentioned is positively ornate, rococo in its delicate guitar and shimmering harmonies. ‘Hey Manhattan’ glistens with the same undiluted glee that the song’s words portray. When McAloon sings “here I am, call me star-struck Uncle Sam,” the strings make sure you revel in the same awe. The instrumental coda that closes out ‘Hey Manhattan’ also highlights one of Prefab Sprout’s biggest assets, Neil Conti’s percussion. Conti spent much of his career as a sought-after session drummer, drumming for greats like Bowie, Eno et al. Prefab Sprout had him to themselves and despite the constant genre-changing, the one constant remains Conti’s steadfast hand.

As a cohesive unit, the band definitely sounded better in the past but this was not the Prefab Sprout of old. This was a new beast entirely. After this album, McAloon became obsessed with the idea of the concept album, writing, ditching, rewriting and ditching many albums worth of material based around different concepts (one shelved idea was eventually released, 2009’s Let’s Change the World with Music, a late-career highlight.) But from Jordon: The Comeback onwards, for better or worse, Prefab Sprout became a sole vehicle for McAloon’s conceptual musings. Langley Park avoids this by the skin of its teeth. It’s a transitionary album unhindered by its flux. This is McAloon’s album, like many would be afterwards, but the band were still needed. One need only look at the cover to see the whole band stood proudly, if somewhat awkwardly. From Langley Park onwards, all four of them would absent from the covers.

I prefaced this review by highlighting how this album was McAloon’s peak of artistic confidence and if the facts stated before this haven’t yet convinced, one must only look to the ‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ for definitive proof on the matter. Firstly, while this may well be a song dedicated to a 1950s songsmith whose only hit was a novelty, it’s not difficult to superimpose McAloon’s personality onto the character. In McAloon’s head, the success of McQueen may just have been a novelty, but right now in this moment, there is no doubt he feels completely true to himself when he sings “I’m the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll… completely. He even markets himself as such. Take the music video for ‘King,’ gone is the straggled beard of a misfit that emblazoned the cover of the previous album, here was a cleanly shaven, long haired charmer perfectly at home striding by the pool. On ‘Enchanted’ when he sordidly sings “tiger stretch, tiger burn” his new personality makes it sound positively sexy. McAloon posits himself as a trailblazer or rather a rabble-rouser, tearing up historical American icons and placing himself in their place, whether it’s Springsteen or Sinatra as on ‘Hey Manhattan.’ He becomes them, self-mythologizing and strident in his confidence.

Langley Park was the album where McAloon felt unstoppable, a song writer at the peak of his powers, a butterfly at the end if its metamorphosis.
– Kieran Baddeley

This is where the ultimate magic of Langley Park lies. Yes, there are better Prefab Sprout albums (Jordon: The Comeback) and there are more beloved ones (Steve McQueen) but Langley Park is special. It’s so life affirming to see an outsider embrace all the commercialism around him, gain the confidence to make an album of this stature and yet remain exclusively himself. With From Langley Park to Memphis, the whole band created something so alluring, so paradoxically strange and so homogenously different that it requires multiple oxymora to try and get across its magic. Perhaps one must listen to it to understand fully.

“Too many folks, feeling car sick”- out of all of McAloon’s lyrics on From Langley Park to Memphis it’s this one that resonates. This album was the one where Paddy McAloon puffed himself up like a peacock; a vessel for bravado and uncharacteristic risk taking. Langley Park was the album where McAloon felt unstoppable, a song writer at the peak of his powers, a butterfly at the end if its metamorphosis. A monolith to the history of pop music and a look towards the future where genres now merely bend to the artist’s will, Langley Park remains a beguiling listen, the sound of iconoclasm and commercialism butting heads to create an album geared towards the pop market while also being a direct move against its format. To this day, it’s an intoxicating and exhilarating listen. At the centre of this monolith was Paddy McAloon and his beguiling newfound confidence as an artist and as a public presence. McAloon was at the wheel, driving forward into a future where Prefab Sprout were ferociously famous and the music world would bow to him.

Of course, the quicker one drives, the quicker things end sourly. From Langley Park to Memphis was the sound of songwriter putting his pedal to the metal, but around every corner is the possibility of car sickness. Really, he was never the public persona he presented around the time of this album. He was the strange outsider who dreamt of long, grey haired, cane-wielding eccentricity. If the car sickness didn’t set in for Paddy McAloon’s fake confidence in 1988, we wouldn’t have the genuine confidence and individuality of McAloon in 2022.