To call I Trawl the Megahertz the “lost” Prefab Sprout album would be both accurate and kind of a misnomer at the same time.
To call I Trawl the Megahertz the “lost” Prefab Sprout album would be both accurate and kind of a misnomer at the same time. While, yes, this was intended to be a Prefab Sprout album, it didn’t entirely languish in obscurity. Megahertz was always intended to be a Prefab album; that it isn’t can be chalked up to McAloon getting cold feet about releasing it under the band’s name. That makes sense, at least from a commercial perspective: Megahertz is about the farthest thing McAloon–a student of pop music if there ever was one–could get from traditional pop music. Even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult to see how Megahertz fits in alongside the rest of the Prefab oeuvre. However, as a crystallization of the unique, mad genius of Paddy McAloon, it stands very much on its own.
Megahertz isn’t a pop album so much as it an orchestral cycle, split between its majestic 22-minute title track and the seven other pieces that follow. McAloon’s vocals are barely on the record, and any human words are few and far between. The words that do appear do so in fragmented bits and samples, all likely inspired by McAloon’s fascination with audiobooks and radio programs while he recovered from an illness that left him temporarily blind. The result is something weirdly cinematic, as if one is watching a futuristic noir with audio that only partially comes through. The title track creates this mood most effectively, its swelling, sweet strings cushioning the devastating tale of broken families told by Yvonne Connors. As a piece of music on its own, “I Trawl the Megahertz” might be McAloon’s finest hour as a composer, the one moment where he transcends pop music and creates something that could more accurately be called high art than anything else released under the Prefab Sprout name.
It’s difficult to figure exactly where a whole album can go after a song like “I Trawl the Megahertz,” but McAloon handles himself admirably. The album retreats into pure classical instrumentation that makes Megahertz sound like a lost film score; pieces like “Esprit de Corps” and “Fall from Grace” evoke sweeping images in the listener’s mind without anyone saying a word. Humans don’t return until the stuttering samples of “I’m 49,” in which McAloon considers his advancing age through recordings of insecure, lost men on radio broadcasts wondering where the time in their life has gone all of a sudden. By the time McAloon appears himself on “Sleeping Rough,” he’s willing to face up to the uncertainties of age, even committing to growing the long gray beard that he eventually would in real life. There’s a bittersweet quality to how McAloon sings here that hearkens back to the trauma of the title track: while he knows that he’s got to keep living, it isn’t some misguided sense of determination and drive that gives him strength; it’s because there’s nothing else to do in life but to keep going.
It’s likely that I Trawl the Megahertz would not have been particularly well-received had McAloon gone ahead and released it as a Prefab Sprout album as he originally intended. While it shares similar themes of loss and alienation that permeate Prefab’s best work, it’s so far removed from pop music that it defies consideration under those terms. One’s enjoyment of the album may very well depend on how far one is willing to follow McAloon down the symphonic rabbit hole here, and that can be a pretty big ask if one’s familiarity with the band doesn’t reach much beyond “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “When Love Breaks Down.” If you do, though, the pleasures contained within will be well worth the time invested.