A Long Bow: Prefab Sprout’s ‘I Trawl The Megahertz’

*A Long Bow is a series where I focus on one artist, album or song and verbally prostrate myself in its honor, as I am not worthy of its presence in my life. Eternally grateful.*

Before you even hit play, make sure you’re in a comfy spot or ready to digest, at the very least, a 20+ minute track and a LONG essay on why it’s incredible. Rough Trade recently remastered Paddy McAloon’s (Prefab Sprout’s lead singer & songwriter) mostly forgotten 2003 solo album I Trawl the MEGAHERTZ this year, and according to McAloon’s desires, reclassified it as a proper Prefab Sprout record. The record is very different than their others, as it’s almost completely instrumental save for a few vocal samples, spoken word, and McAloon’s voice appearing on one song. However, it does not differ from the Prefab catalog in nearly every other department: it is masterfully arranged; perfectly orchestrated to pull at the heart strings with a three-pronged claw of melancholy, grace and humor.

I’ve posted about Prefab on the blog before, but if you’re new to them, here’s a quick rundown: Paddy McAloon is one of the world’s best songwriters of all time. Quite a way to start off a synopsis, eh? The band’s heyday in the mid/late 80s saw the band achieve multiple radio hits while still being an esoteric, totally nerdy pop band with humorous, romantic and self-deprecating lyrics, presented in the most slick ways possible. 1985’s Steve McQueen is my personal favorite and widely regarded as the band’s most complete work, but 1988’s From Langley Park to Memphis has the band’s mega-hits “The King of Rock N Roll” and “Cars & Girls” and is likely more well known across the board. Jordan: The Comeback [1990] is also highly regarded in its sprawling, infectious oddity. With the band known for its revelatory clever pop smashes, a fully instrumental record with a 20+ minute opening track caught fans, record label execs and the music press off guard. Megahertz was tremendously overlooked at the time, nearly 15 years after their height, almost certain to be lost to time.

Read more + listen more to I Trawl the Megahertz

Sixteen years later, we have sounds and creators looking back on the sounds of Prefab + associated acts to make current art, albeit not to the same mass appeal audience the band gathered at the time. We have producers like Kurt Feldman, the head of projects like Ice Choir and Roman Á Clef, actively pursuing the off-the-wall, earnest, perfectionist pop sounds that Scritti-Politti and Prefab were crafting in their height. We have indie darling Natalie Prass covering Jordan‘s “Wild Horses” in a recent Amazon Live session (and doing it mad justice). You have a wave of 80s nostalgia once again washing up on our shores in the form of an obsession with Japanese City Pop, a mix of fusion, pop, rock, AOR and electronics, taking the internet by storm for the past five years. Plus, you have music nerds like me with a network of other highly trained music nerds keeping us all updated on the best things they’ve heard across their years of digging, thanks to access to a wide open sea of music to pull from and feature on a platform. In my case, it also doesn’t hurt to have a mom that would recommend Prefab to me along with The Smiths, The Style Council and Aztec Camera. With all this window dressing to work with, we have the ability to reevaluate Prefab & McAloon’s influence on pop and songwriting in the present, therefore being able to fully appreciate and contextualize what I Trawl the Megahertz, an album that’s nearly instrumental (like I said, save for a few monumental tracks), further cements about McAloon as a songwriter.

Hey, how about I talk about the music? Megahertz was made at a time when McAloon was losing his eyesight, while simultaneously battling severe tinnitus. He therefore spent his time listening to rogue radio frequencies and audio books, since he couldn’t listen to music without pain. He was inspired by the things he heard over the radio waves, thus inspiring not only his own songwriting (seen briefly on “Sleeping Rough”) and sampling (“I’m 49”), but framing the narrative for the epiphanous title-track. Narrated by Yvonne Connors, this opening number guides the listener through one of the most compelling stories and soundscapes I’ve ever heard, acting more like a short film or musical than a traditional paint-by-numbers song. It swells with a nervous bravado, kept afloat with burning heartache and naive optimism. It channels the energy of a rogue shooting star, echoing across the atmosphere with objects just out of reach and gone in a second. It reminds me of certain tender moments in Studio Ghibli soundtracks, ones that bubble with wonder at the every day minutiae of the world.

Of course, the track doesn’t behave like an audio book for the 20-minute duration. The lush orchestral backdrop, dripping with at times schmaltzy emotion, inhales and exhales with the natural pace of the world; adding flourishes of mandolin, saxophone, stings of guitar, clarinet, chimes, string solos, bells, and plenty more. The consistent ebb and flow of strings provides a strong foundation for these little dynamic details further establish the universe as unique, special and always changing. There are interludes that paint the sky with feeling, filling in the spaces with phrases words cannot parse. Clearly, my overly dramatic writing is a perfect fit for a song like this, but even I cannot truly put its magic into words. It needs to be heard, with full attention, to be believed.

The rest of the instrumental tracks are populated by a boisterous orchestra and are arranged in such a way that they could easily soundtrack a film, again pushing the idea that this could be the score to a lost Studio Ghibli film. “We Were Poor…” brings the record back down to Earth with its slinky bass and tinny trumpet, a signature Prefab instrumental choice. The motifs from the title track continue and morph throughout, really giving motion and setting to the album as a whole. This is not some collection of tracks slapped together and shipped out – this is a full bodied piece of work that demands respect to be digested as such.

Elsewhere, a cheeky manner of self-reflective flagellation once again appears in the Prefab discography in this “I’m 49”: instead of the words coming straight from the brain of McAloon, it’s coming from the voices of real, human people. The continues to use orchestral motifs set in the previous songs, but intersperses another story of loneliness, isolation and lost love, this time set forth through samples of talk radio programs. The track’s title comes from a sample heavily used in the song in which a man divulges on a radio show that he is “49, divorced”, and builds upon that with other conversational samples, corresponding with orchestral flourishes, a lighthearted hi-hat led drum beat, flamboyant trumpet, a searching radio dial, and an overall malaise of “what am I to do now, with all this nothing in my lap?” It’s an interestingly lightweight song for something so heavy, which again is one of McAloon’s specialties: making light of the everyday slog.

“Sleeping Rough” is the only track on the album to feature McAloon’s vocals, as pristine as they were on the hits from a decade prior. He sings of being lost and growing a long, silver beard (one he actually has now), and how not even earthly responsibilities can tether him to our reality. The strings are slow and stagnant, holding notes that seem to last forever. Small, shiny stars of synth, hand drum, and marimba ripple across a highly reverbed soundscape. McAloon is drifting away, stripped of his desires and is content with this state of despondency. I also learned while writing this that sleeping rough is another word for homelessness, working with the theme of being dislodged from stability.  In reality, McAloon does live relatively sheltered from the rest of the world, still living in his birthplace of northern England. Still writing, of course, but not aiming to share and create “hits”, per se. I’m sure we can somewhat all sympathize here: who hasn’t felt a strange, alien comfort in letting a slow tide carry you deep into the stratus of your psyche, embracing the hollow nature that clings to you in dire moments? Not trying to glamorize homelessness of course, but rather a state where you have nothing to mentally cling onto, allowing yourself to scatter across a placid plane.

Returning to Prefab’s Sprout consistent themes from their songwriting – isolation, loneliness, yearning, heartbreak, romance – they’re all present here, but presented in a form that McAloon had not explored yet in his career. Largely without words, with only pure compositional skill guiding the way. This alternative vehicle takes everything he had worked for and amplifies it to new levels, being able to exude the emotions and feelings through instrumental cues and driving motifs. There are very few songwriters that I can think of that could achieve this kind of feat, save for maybe Nick Cave or Björk. Am I full of bias and thinking too far into it? Perhaps, but I can’t think of a better way to reinvigorate someone’s songwriting career than re-releasing a record like this, a testament to how versatile and prolific they are in the face of a changing world.

We’re all traveling down these different astral paths in life, accompanying and diverting from others as they go along their own unique paths. Sometimes we go along without others on our same path. These states of companionship and camaraderie are always fluctuating. Sometimes they only last a second, some last what seems like a lifetime. One constant though is that we’re always in orbit, always in our journey, cascading through the universe, coming in contact other paths along the way. This album is a transmission from the moments when we float unaccompanied, dreaming of nostalgic memories with both rosy reflection and damning regret. In this time we find solace in great expanse that we’ve been dealt, finding wonder and potential envy in watching the stars and galaxies pass us by. Our cores burn with a natural, unyielding heartache. Our brains comatose with personal troubles and anxiety. Someday we’ll cross paths with another again. Even an instant will reignite the flame. Then the process will begin again. This album is a transmission from those moments. And I graciously thank McAloon and all the players on the record for it.

Buy I Trawl the Megahertz on Rough Trade’s site, or in your local record store.

About Very Warm

Usually cool dude stuff.
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2 Responses to A Long Bow: Prefab Sprout’s ‘I Trawl The Megahertz’

  1. Momma D says:

    I must listen to this! I’ll find a chill time to indulge. Thanks for the “mom” shout out ;). You’re such a good writer!
    Oh, I also love “When Love Breaks Down” by Prefab!

  2. Pingback: 2019 Retrospective – 100 Songs + Listening Stats | Warm Visions

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