1985 was a strange year for music. New wave was dead, and college rock was just getting going. The number of cool artists around was distressingly small, and they seemingly all came from either Minneapolis or Manchester. In amidst the jangle of the Smiths, the buzz of Hüsker Dü, and the synth washes of New Order, Northern England quartet Prefab Sprout’s second album, Steve McQueen, slipped in between the cracks as the elegant record that hipsters could chill out to. Popular, too, it hit #21 on the UK album charts. In the US, those bullies in charge of the estate of deceased actor Steve McQueen made poor Prefab change the album title. The band apparently consulted a caveman and went with Two Wheels Good (okay, now try saying, “mo-tor-cy-cle”). Despite its clunky American name, the disc still managed to crack the Billboard 200.
So, we now know which artists Prefab Sprout don’t sound like. But their music doesn’t exist purely in contrast to other trends of the time. In truth, this album resides pretty snugly between the sophisti-pop of Style Council and the smartly written ditties of Aztec Camera. If you began the day with Café Bleu and slogged through the afternoon thanks to a spin of High Land, Hard Rain, then Steve McQueen would make for a perfect evening’s programming.
Which isn’t to say that the music here is sleepy. Rather, it is daydreamy, creating its own lush little alcove of sound for you to drift into. This atmosphere begins with the soulful voice of leader Paddy McAloon. Even as he’s passionately warning us against the pitfalls that occur “When Loves Breaks Down”, the effect is far from bracing. And, when McAloon breathily croons the line, “Hunger stays ‘til it’s fed”, the outside world slips into a fog. Thomas Dolby’s keyboard flourishes also add greatly to the mood. Among chiming guitars, legato bass lines, and softly crashing cymbals, Dolby’s synth pads infuse the record with an ambience of dusky air pushing through a summer’s window screen.
Steve McQueen is more than a pleasant mood, though. McAloon’s songs are mostly excellent. Along with lead single “When Loves Breaks Down”, the rockabilly-infused opener “Faron Young” is a bouncy, catchy, and complexly arranged number that could almost be mistaken for a cut off Meat Is Murder; “Hallelujah” references George Gershwin in its lyrics and 1970s soul balladry in its breezy sway; and late album beauty “Desire As” is a weary post-breakup wonder (“I’ve got six things on my mind / You’re no longer one of them”).
As a testament to the strength of the songwriting on Steve McQueen, this remastered Legacy Edition comes with a bonus disc of solo acoustic versions of most of the album’s tracks, which McAloon recorded in 2006 specifically for the release. With only a six-string and his own voice, Paddy offers lovely interpretations of his two-decades-old songs. He opts not to redo “Horsin’ Around” and “Blueberry Pies”, and this pair of omissions emphasizes the couple of tracks on the original that drag the album down from perfection to mere excellence. Fortunately, the record’s rare low points are subtle miscues and won’t get in your way of enjoying Prefab Sprout’s 1985 classic.