Certain popular music stands both in and both out of its time. To acquire the latter quality, it needs to appeal to a wide range of emotions, and sustain the appeal even when whatever stylistic facets it shows fall out of general fashion.
Most of the music that has endured has these qualities, that are most clearly defined in folk music. Popular music, of course, draws its roots from folk music but is quite clearly distinct. Much of it is made for purely commercial reasons, and most of it is clearly derivative of itself or other less well-known musical streams, be they folk, jazz, gospel, country (which in itself is an adaptation of the folk idiom, blues, and the composed popular song (Minstrel into Tin Pan Alley & Broadway).
Today, the dominant popular forms are rock ‘n’ roll derived, so much so that rock influence has seeped right back into those contributing forms. Listen to jazz or country these days, and the rock influence is clear.
This is no bad thing – popular music thrives on cross-fertilization and withers on the vine in isolation.
All of which serves as a pertinent preamble to a consideration of Prefab Sprouts’ Steve McQueen album (inexplicably called Two Wheels Good in the U.S.).
This is a pop/rock album, owing something to early 1980s aesthetic – it’s produced by Thomas Dolby and is awash in his synthesized orchestration – but ultimately it is more out of than in that time period. It is also drenched, however, with sounds and song structures drawn from American vernacular music spanning the whole 20th century (and to some extent even earlier, Stephen Foster comes to mind here).
I hear the words of Georgie Gershswin sings songwriter Paddy McAloon in Hallelujah and Gershwin’s shadow is long over this record. As, indeed, is the craftsmanship and melodic sensibility of all the pre- and between-wars song composers – Kern, Rodgers, Carmichael, Berlin etc.
Not that this record aspires to sound quite like its influences. On the surface, it’s not that different from a contemporary pop album by, for example, Elton John. But dig a little lower, and a much stronger set of songs than typically found on John’s records becomes apparent. Lyrically, McAloon shares the same wit and acumen that you would find in the best Elvis Costello or Squeeze songs – to name but two contemporary artists with early Prefab Sprout.
Melodically, those great songwriters of the past are clear models, even as any direct influence is disguised by the pop-rock arrangements. Although the song Faron Young uses country music instruments, they are mixed to provide a strangely displaced and ironic sound over what is essentially a mid-to-fast tempo pop song.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of this record is although it practically should scream Beatles – particularly Paul McCartney’s approach – it seems to bypass that band. Or should I say, it runs parallel. It seems to feed off the same sources that nurtured The Beatles, and it is quite conceivable that Lennon-McCartney might have written these songs. But they did not, and somehow the record resolutely seems to have sidestepped their influence.
Which, of course, is most unlikely – but it is a measure of the individuality of this record that it has such an independent feel.
Steve McQueen really is record that stands in and out of its time, and is a true classic of thoughtful, melodic popular song.