Bought: Tower Records Piccadilly, 1998?
Perhaps like a lot of Prefab fans, I came to Swoon (Songs Written Out Of Necessity) some time after I’d bought and fallen in love with the later albums Steve McQueen, Protest Songs, From Langley Park to Memphis and Jordan The Comeback.
The dry, Thomas Dolby-less production came as a bit of a shock to me at the time but Swoon stands up pretty well today. I was once discussing this album with a friend recently who said the only way you can tell it’s an ’80s album is because it features a lot of major-seventh chords. This comment intrigued me but instinctively seemed on the money – it was a very ‘jazzy’ decade (think Sade, Hue and Cry, Danny Wilson, Swing Out Sister, even Madness, XTC, Squeeze etc).
Though some critics have compared the album to Steely Dan, my contemporary reference points would be Lloyd Cole, The Smiths, Aztec Camera and Songs To Remember-era Scritti, though it’s basically impossible to locate Prefab’s influences.
I’m tempted to say, listening to it 30 years after its release, that Swoon sounds like the epitome of an ‘indie’ record with its stripped-back production values and jagged edges. Prefab singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon recently told The Guardian that he thinks of it as more akin to Captain Beefheart, nicknaming the album ‘Sprout Mask Replica’!
Swoon definitely still sounds very much like a debut album; it’s perky, eager to please, naive, studenty, slightly pretentious. McAloon’s vocals occasionally resemble the ramblings of a slightly squiffy, randy teenager. But the album’s adolescent in a really good way with its literary flights of fancy, indulgent ruminations on romantic love and lots of audacious melodic flourishes.
It sounds almost like rock, with solid 4/4 drums, groovy but always inventive bass from Paddy’s brother Michael and ‘girlie’ backing vocals, and yet it resolutely refuses to ‘rock out’ with not a single power chord or jangly electric guitar in the mix.
Instead, the intrepid layering of synths and acoustic guitars (utilised to far greater effect on Steve McQueen and Jordan) probes the songs’ pressure points. And Wendy Smith’s pristine vocals give the music an enigmatic, otherworldly flavour.
Listening again recently, lyrically Swoon reminded me of Joyce’s Ulysses; a survey of a young man’s hopes, dreams and romantic/professional disappointments. A quick survey of the lyrics in the CD inlay card suggests that at the songwriting stage the words came first, resembling stream-of-consciousness prose rather than traditional verse/chorus songcraft. Novelist/essayist Dave Eggers wrote a great piece about how much he was influenced by this golden generation of literate British songwriters.
As befitting a band from the North East, work (and the lack of it) is a recurring theme, particularly on ‘I Never Play Basketball Now’ and the extraordinary ‘Technique’. ‘Couldn’t Bear To Be Special’ is a classic Prefab ballad (though surely never the right choice for second single) and seems to offer a truly original take on the doomed love affair – the narrator simply doesn’t feel worthy to deserve the attentions of another. Very Nick Hornby-esque.
Future producer Thomas Dolby has talked about the shock of hearing ‘Don’t Sing’ when he was a guest reviewer on the Radio 1 Round Table show. It indeed remains a stunning introduction to this half-brilliant album and to Prefab’s glittering career.
And ‘Cruel’ is still a delicious (if a trifle fey) piece of pop/bossa nova, more than a decade before the likes of Belle and Sebastian mined similar ground.
Oh – and don’t forget to read the silly but funny mock liner notes penned by McAloon in the guise of an over-exuberant music scribe…which is where we came in.