Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lost Album of the '80s: Prefab Sprout's "Swoon"

It's not unlikely that you missed one of the best albums of the 80s - and it would be hard to fault you. In 1984, Prefab Sprout released their debut album, Swoon. And while it rose to the top 20 in their native England, it drew little attention in the U.S. The rest of their career followed suit, as eight of their albums reached the top 40 in the UK Albums Charts, while only one of their albums, Steve McQueen, made it into Billboard's top 200. This despite the superlative adjectives heaped upon Paddy McAloon, whose songwriting abilities have compared to Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney and even Cole Porter. One important fan the band did win over with Swoon was Thomas Dolby, who went on to produce several Prefab albums, sometimes being referred to as "the fifth Sprout."

Even after 26 years, I'm hard-pressed to find an album that compares to Swoon. It's a highly original work that meshes genres to create a sophisticated sound by using jazz chord progressions and complex song structures that take unexpected turns. McAloon makes the most of his strong voice with unusual phrasing complemented by Wendy Smith's breathy background vocals. His lyrics are smart and often poetic ("words are trains / for moving past what really has no name"). Each song complements the next; there are no weak links. It is an album to be listened to as a whole, preferably in the late evening. While I was drawn into Swoon the first time I heard it, I know many people who had to give it a number of listens before appreciating it. It's well worth the effort.

Prefab Sprout went on to release many more fine albums, but none has equaled their debut in originality or complexity. Sadly, in recent years McAloon has suffered from serious health issues: a degenerative eye condition has impaired his sight, and tinnitus causes him painful aural sensations. Nevertheless, he has continued to write and record, even though he hasn't released much of his recent work. Perhaps we have something to look forward to.

Here is "Cue Fanfare" from Swoon. (Static video).

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