Review Summary: All cigarettes have been air-brushed from these pictures, making everyone a liar.
Quietly released in 2003 to a record-buying public which had not expected it, Paddy McAloon's I Trawl The Megahertz
is more than just an absurd one-off by the Prefab Sprout frontman. It was, however, the first album of original material by McAloon since 1997's Andromeda Heights,
and challenged the idea of what the project stood for, conceptually and musically. Megahertz
went through a lengthy development stage, which had its origins in McAloon's own health at the tail-end of the nineties, beginning with his failing eyesight and extensive surgery which left him temporarily blind and homebound; and later on with Meniere's disease, with which tinnitus is a side-effect. To pass the time during his recovery, McAloon listened to and sampled shortwave radio broadcasts. A great deal of these broadcasts would become the source material for his next project under the Prefab Sprout name, following the self-covers album The Gunman and Other Stories.
Undeniably so, the tonal shift from Gunman
is the most radical change seen in the Prefab Sprout canon, one so much greater than the transition from the raw and progressive sound of Swoon
to Steve McQueen
or the total Technicolor production of Jordan: The Comeback.
But weirdly enough, this progression makes more than enough sense when you look at Prefab Sprout as more of an enigma, an idea rather than something already set in stone.
Unfortunately enough, upon its initial release back in the day, McAloon's label, Liberty/EMI, took issue with this stance and the sheer difficulty in marketing this new album and having the Prefab Sprout name attached to it, citing that it would confuse and further alienate fans, who had slowly dwindled over the years mainly due to inconsistent releases and a lack of touring throughout the nineties. McAloon even seemed to agree at the time, believing it would disappoint fans who were looking for "single material." And so, I Trawl The Megahertz
became a Paddy McAloon solo album at the very last minute, dooming it to obscurity as the album went nowhere, was hardly reviewed (and infamously ignored by The Guardian, which had left McAloon discouraged after the fact) and remained out of print for over a decade, its sole issuing soon becoming a rarity. Fast-forward to 2019 and along with the entirety of the Prefab Sprout discography, it has seen a good deal of reassessment, reaching a larger audience today than it had in 2003. It's not all too hard to believe when you listen to it for the first time and you're immediately given the radio jingle motif of its existential title cut, a piece that is part character study (as narrated by Yvonne Connors), part modern classical tour-de-force. Connors, chosen by McAloon to record Megahertz
in 1999, is nothing short of sublime on this piece; delivering lines that could be seen as mundane elsewhere now transformed into gripping and poignant. Mind the length and the heavy-handed usage of minimalist orchestrations to drive the song along for twenty-plus minutes, but to go any further into detail would be akin to spoiling it for anyone who hasn't heard it. It has to be heard to be believed.
can possibly be seen as one whole suite, as several motifs and themes reveal themselves subtly throughout each segment, with the shortwave radio material increasingly coming into play, ranging from tales of divorce and heartbreak to the casualties of war, all before coming to a halt with a song so astounding that it's perhaps the finest thing Paddy McAloon has ever put to tape. "Sleeping Rough" is a prophecy of what's to come for its writer, foretelling of his ageing and his now-radically different look with lyrics like "I'll grow a long and silver beard and let it reach my knees." It's so simple, yet McAloon delivers with it such certainty before he disappears beneath the melancholic orchestration that surrounds him. I Trawl The Megahertz
is simply one of those career-defining albums, a triumph of not only music, but of art itself. It defies everything Prefab Sprout previously stood for and what people thought it could be, yet there's absolutely nothing else like it to date elsewhere by McAloon. And for the longest time, it would be the final recording by McAloon, who wouldn't return with an album of brand new material until 2013's Crimson/Red.