Recently Dan Cairns in the U.K. Times found listening to one of the songs from Paddy McAloon’s new album (recorded seventeen years ago but only released last week) to be a heartbreaking experience.
First, because, well, it’s so beautiful, it just is. Second, because you get such a clear sense of a supreme talent that you can’t help but mourn its subsequent concealment, and feel compassion for the concealer.
The concealer of this supreme talent, by implication here, has been Paddy McAloon himself, who—at least according to one narrative—has become transformed from a burgeoning star of pop music in the late 1980s into a long-white-bearded recluse today, holed up in his native County Durham, now suffering from damaged eyesight and hearing, but still obsessively composing songs and albums destined to be heard by no one.
McAloon, as the singer and songwriter of the erstwhile band Prefab Sprout, possesses the kind of talent that has often invoked heady comparisons to the likes of Cole Porter and Paul McCartney. While achieving some significant success in Britain and Europe, the band’s difficult-to-categorize music never really broke into the more structured U.S. market. This new (seventeen-year-old) album, just released under the Prefab Sprout name, is called Let’s Change The World With Music. (That’s a wry title, since the songs don’t address notions of political change, but instead the way in which great music seems to have the power to change one’s personal world.) It just may be McAloon’s masterwork, albeit never fully realized, because the recordings, while elaborate, are basically just demonstration tapes he made alone in his kitchen in 1992.
So what’s the story here anyway? Well, the story relevant to this space resides in why the public didn’t get to hear this really quite remarkable and saleable music until now. It seems that God had something to do with it.
Specifically, in this collection of songs McAloon repeatedly invokes Judeo-Christian imagery. Often it is by way of lyrically illuminating the link between great music and the sublime, and evoking the manner in which beautiful music can sometimes seem to provide a fleeting pathway to the transcendent. When Sony executives heard the references on the demo-tape to God, to gospel music, and even to Jesus (!), they were apparently uncomfortable. As put in a recent story in the Telegraph, the project "was shelved after an A&R meeting when doubts were expressed about whether the world was ready for a concept album with references to God." Sony’s own web-based press release refers to “mutterings behind the scenes” due to the various mentions of the Supreme Being in the material. McAloon, who had put months into recording his demos and (as we now know) had hit musical heights of which he had every reason to be proud, was taken aback, to say the least. As the soft-spoken songsmith told British music magazine Mojo this summer, “I’d put everything I had into it. I smiled, but was hurt.”
Significantly, McAloon did not go back and rewrite the songs. Removing God or writing him into the background might have been quite easy for someone possessing this songwriter’s facility with words. But no—instead he put the tapes back in their box, and, after an unknown time spent licking his wounds, moved on to the composition of other projects. However, as aficionados of his music can see now with hindsight, something had gone awry at more than just a superficial level. If his talent to that point had been comparable to a meteor, growing brighter and brighter with each new album, now it seemed that some strange brakes had been applied to McAloon’s shooting star. He did not publicly complain of the rejection of Let’s Change the World With Music. He spoke in occasional interviews of other elaborate projects, but these were often works that he never seemed to quite finish or gather the will to record. Actual releases became dramatically sparse.
What were the religious references that so disturbed the Sony execs all those years ago? On the song “Let There Be Music,” God is imagined, soon after creation, taking pity on lonely mankind and saying, “Let music be my voice.” The syncopated verses give way to McAloon’s warmly melodic and perfectly circular refrain, “He said let there be music / And there was / Children don’t you cry because. . . . ” An even bigger offender may have been the song “Ride,” with its gospel-inspired chorus of “They will ride, ride / Home to Jesus, heads held high.” However, the three verses tell the listener that such will be the reward not only for the religiously faithful, but also, respectively, for good people who “deny anything that they can’t see with their own eye,” and for the “good man” who has “too much on his mind to work it out.” Were the Sony people correct to fear that this kind of thing would be (as McAloon suggests on their behalf in his liner notes) “box-office poison”? It certainly seems not, on the basis of popular and critical reaction this newly released old album has garnered so far. On a fan message board, even a proud atheist has willingly confessed to breaking down in tears on hearing McAloon’s song “Sweet Gospel Music”—a song that is a pounding but poignant tribute to the named musical form.
Considering the notion of Christianity in English popular music can’t help but bring to my mind the singer Cliff Richard. Another British star who never really made the big-time in the United States, Richard has for decades proudly worn his faith in Jesus on his sleeve. Yet, despite the embarrassment this must have caused the famously religiously reticent British, the fact is that he has remained a perennial hit-maker. Perhaps religious faith is not so off-putting to the average record-buyer as it is to certain elites. McAloon, unlike Cliff Richard, isn’t known for talking publicly on matters of faith. He has been questioned about it in interviews lately, as it seems relevant to the story of this latest release, but he has been more or less evasive about his own personal religious beliefs or lack thereof, perhaps understandably preferring that his songs be left to occupy their own space in the minds of listeners. The most forthcoming he’s been was perhaps to Neil McCormick in the Telegraph:
Bob Dylan believes in God, and Richard Dawkins is never going to win an argument against Bob Dylan, cause you need a poet to discuss these things. So let’s just say I’m with Bob.
There are quite a number of moments during songs on this strange and exuberant gem of a record that can’t help but sound ironic to a listener who knows the story of its seventeen-year incarceration in obscurity. Some are deeply touching, as when McAloon is paying tribute to music as his princess or as his angel of love and confessing how far short he feels he has fallen of being worthy of her. Then there is the kind of irony present in the sonic tour-de-force that is “Meet The New Mozart,” with the young McAloon imagining that composer on his deathbed:
Only days before he died the Salzburg wonder prophesied
“I know one day I will see a less heartbreaking century
I’ll form a band, and play some dates
Reject the music God dictates
All I write may not last
Hell, it may be manure
But I’ll endure
Not burn out fast.”
McAloon may not be Mozart, but listeners have reason to be grateful that his album Let’s Change the World With Music has indeed come to see its own “less heartbreaking century.”
Sean Curnyn is a writer living in New York City.