Prefab Sprout – Steve McQueen

Originally released June 1985. Subsequently Retitled “Two Wheels Good” in the US at the request of the McQueen estate. Original review pubished 24th May 2007.

Author’s note:  This version represents a substantial re-write of the published original.

Steve McQueen’s predecessor, Swoon had been critically hailed as a near miss in the minor classic stakes, despite the band’s apparent determination to make use of art school inflection and literary trappings amongst it’s repressed emotions; song titles like “I Never Play Basketball Now” and “Green Isaac” spoke more to a good bookshelf than a grip of pop’s dynamics.

The Sprout’s patient but quizzical major label knew they had an act with similar properties to a Rubik’s cube; potentially as accessible as The Smiths, yet superficially complex and off-putting for the man in the street. Either way, the choice of producer for their second album would be key, and the selection of Thomas Dolby proved to be inspired. Already at the vanguard of a new generation of studio wizards  and with a back catalogue streaked with an outsider’s perspective, he seemed more than capable of bringing some direction and clarity to the band’s sometimes fussy, archaic and cluttered arrangements.

So the question – sometimes, as a critic you wonder, really wonder, if a band actually know when they walk into a studio that they have a bona fide winning formula tucked under their arm. On this occasion surely Paddy McAloon & co. must have sensed it. For a start the fumbling British affectation was mercilessly dispensed with a new, TransAtlantic brogue; almost surgically removed also was their tendency to over-elaborate, replaced with hearts on sleeves and an openness to new ideas that was Dolby’s side of the bargain. But if you think Steve McQueen is merely a savant technocrat getting results by boiling everything down to their common denominations, you’d be wildly underestimating the material both parties had to work with; coaxed into the sunlight, McAloon emerged as a witty, charming observer, hip to his charachter’s emotions, a storyteller in prose.

This new fascination with Americana was introduced confidently, opener “Faron Young”, as urgent and kinetic as the band had ever sounded, before sliding almost to a halt into the brilliant, heart wrenching “Bonny”, a song of loss with a refrain to be heartbroken for. In the age of “sides” they were part of one of the decade’s best; “When Love Breaks Down”, a hit on what seemed like it’s dozenth re-release, is loss without bitterness, “Appetite” by contrast the avaricious knowledge of joy confined. “Hallelujah”, seemingly a Swoon refugee quoting Gershwin, whilst Goodbye Lucille was in one moment tender and then the next bombastic, wide screen and plangent.

Inevitably, the rest seemed a little pallid and less sure footed by contrast, like the nervous runner up at school science day. The qualities for instance which had made the introvert nature of Swoon so attractive failed to rub off on it’s cludgy descendents Horsin’ Around or Blueberry Pies – both ruminations on infidelity, whilst finally “When the Angels….” opened with a church organ and saw McAloon exploring theology to the sound of slap bass and a trumpet solo. 

These recurring themes of faith, loss and sin would eventually coalesce into the luxuriant soul of From Langley Park To Memphis, but for then it seemed that Steve McQueen was Prefab Sprout’s calling: fractured genius, a brilliant cameo.