Listen to this track by British sophisti-pop architects from County Durham, Prefab Sprout. It’s “When Love Breaks Down”, a single released in 1984 and later to be included on the landmark 1985 album Steve McQueen.
As has been well documented by now, the mid-eighties was a transitional period for bands who traded in synthesizers and post-punk guitar earlier in the decade. Along with The Style Council, Aztec Camera, Sade, and others, Prefab Sprout was one of the vanguard in England to adapt that earlier and increasingly dated (at the time, anyway!) sound with more textural and thematic sophistication. They did so by infusing the dynamics of post punk and new wave with warmer and more soulful atmospheres in instrumentation, arrangement, and production values. It even had a name as christened by the music press; sophisti-pop.
This song is one of the greatest examples of that musical movement. This was not just about the elements of jazz pop and soft rock that can be found here. It’s also about the song’s subject matter and how communicating it to an audience stood in contrast to the less emotionally direct styles of songwriting found at the height of the new wave and post punk era. This is a long way from Joy Division. In this new paradigm, it was time for songwriters to face the music when it came to matters of the heart.
I think a big part of this shift came down to songwriters of the times remembering the music of their youth again, pre-dating the punk rock year zero influences that would be found in a lot of music coming out of Britain by the late seventies and early eighties. If Kraftwerk and Neu! had an influence on songwriters who traded in new wave, then so did soul music and orchestral pop. It was that same dance between those musical poles of electronic texture and soulful grittiness that influenced the directions of David Bowie and Roxy Music ten years earlier. The ratios between electronics and soul just tipped in the latter direction a bit more for their musical disciples by the mid-eighties. There was less detachment by this time (although the Pet Shop Boys would bring it back!), and more emphasis on direct and down to earth themes with more sophisticated emotional landscapes to fuel them.
The songwriting in question on this song is down to frontman and head writer Paddy McAloon, known even today as one of the most skillful writers of this subgenre of pop music, and noted for his skill in songwriting in general. In this tune, the elusive meanings of the new wave period is substitued with candour; this is what happens when love is left untended, and that when it does go wrong it usually isn’t expressed in a trite pop music “how could she do this to me??” tradition. On “When Love Breaks Down”, the person to blame for the relationship coming to an end is pretty fuzzy. Perhaps no one is to blame, and that love was never sustainable to begin with. It is heartbreaking in its honesty, stepping out from behind any of the evasive cleverness, irony, or sulleness associated with the new wave era. Quite simply, it’s an adult song. It’s about facing up to the world of adult emotions and about having to navigate the terrain of the heart without the promise of a destination or payoff.
This song gave Prefab Sprout a modest boost in the charts Stateside. So did the Steve McQueen album (known as Two Wheels Good in North America), a record produced by Thomas Dolby who himself had graduated from making pure synthpop into a warmer and more musically varied space on his own records by the mid-eighties. Maybe this musical commonality between Dolby and McAloon is why the record had so much impact, at least in Britain, where it went platinum as well as being critically lauded and where it remains to be held in high esteem today. This song has been covered by many since, including The Zombies, Lisa Stansfield, and Snow Patrol.
These days, Prefab Sprout’s sole member is Paddy McAloon. This was mostly a move to make allowances for a couple of health issues that made working with a band impractical.
Being seemingly shy of the Internet, it’s not easy to keep up with him since the last Prefab Sprout record Crimson Red in 2013. But around that time, the guys at Sodajerker.com managed to interview him about his songwriting process, which you can and should listen to right here.