This crazy little thing called love

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He's a man in his mid-40s, a serious orchestral chronicler of love in all its ruffled aspects, and he cares little about the text-messaging generation with its press-on tattoos, Lady Marmalade cover versions and flower-power flares.

A band that strode through the1980s in a pair of hefty size-10s, but which has now tucked its feet underneath a hot-water bottle, Prefab Sprout is against emotional shortcuts. Yet the band is still here and is still special because it dares to proclaim that love - fickle, fleeting, frustrating and downright fidgety - might not be such a bad thing altogether.

Paddy McAloon, meanwhile, is essentially a traditionalist, a person who uses his songwriting genius to broad effect. Years go by without a Prefab Sprout record being released, but fans don't mind because they know that whatever comes next will be at worst good, at best stunning, always admirable. It's been four years since the band's previous album, the extraordinary Andromeda Heights, took McAloon's superlative songwriting skills and cast them into outer space. In a suitably ironic touch, the new Prefab Sprout record, The Gunman & Other Stories, brings them right down to earth.

But first the bad news: one of the reasons for the four-year delay between studio albums is a recurring vision problem about which McAloon, tragically, doesn't hold out much hope. His retinas detach of their own accord due to the shrinking of the jelly of the eye. The logical outcome is that, if the jelly keeps on shrinking - thereby continually detaching the retinas - full blindness will follow.

"They've patched me up about three times now," says McAloon with equal amounts of restraint and despondency. "I have little devices in my eyes which keep them pressed against the retina. At the moment I can see, but it's likely it'll happen again. It's pretty rough, but I'm all right.

"It all depends on what you bring to the situation, doesn't it? At least I'm not in my early 20s, which would depress me even more. The only real thing that winds me up is that I love to read and collect books. God has given me a fine cross to bear, I think. But when my girls are old enough they can read to me - an old blind git cursing them from a chair."

On its own, The Gunman & Other Stories is a good record, but not one to brag about. In fact, compared to previous Prefab Sprout offerings it's a disappointment, if only in the sense one feels about not only the album's country-and-western theme but also the procedure in which a number of the songs were written. In large part, the songs were made to order for Crocodile Shoes, a television series starring fellow Geordie Jimmy Nail (who had a 1995 hit with McAloon's Cowboy Dreams, included on the album). The title track, The Gunman, was also a hit for that most unlikely of Prefab Sprout fans, Cher.

Although McAloon buffs up the project - using the image of the Wild West as a metaphor for heroic romanticism, myths, mid-life crises and autobiographical reminiscences - there's a distinct impression that he's aware it's an under-par piece of work.

"I felt with this record that, as it was country music, it had to be pretty direct. It couldn't be too fanciful, and if for some reason it was then the songs had to stick to the one metaphor. And I liked that." Then again, maybe not. "Well, I liked it for a time and then I exhausted the mine and I had to move on. Making a straight country record would have been dreary to me, though. I wanted to have a playful aspect to it and for me to be more of an arty English artist with it. There was no point to me to have it as an authentic country record - you leave things like that to the Americans.

"Also, the new album - if you're kind to it - is classic because it relies on old-fashioned, traditional styles of songwriting," he says. "There's nothing terribly startling there. Most of it rests pretty comfortably on things other people have done, which is narrative ballads, those kinds of songs. It might not be revolutionary, but it's close to my heart, as all our albums are."

Yet despite what McAloon does, whatever project or theme he invests his time in, the subject dissected is invariably the vagaries of love and romance - big issues cynically by-passed, blatantly ignored or casually abused by so many of today's pop stars. So - what is it about this crazy thing called love?

"Some days I sit down and say to myself that I should write about a different subject, and that maybe the time to do that is now. But I try to reassure myself that this is not a bad thing to do at all. The detective or the cop drama is to television what love is to pop music - it's a source of conflict. The love song is good at that - you've either lost something or you want to find something, or you're trying to recreate something - and I plug away at that.

"I'm sure some people think I'm just doing the same thing over and over again. As a fan you often want to hear more of the same. But from the other side of the fence, you fear of writing Part Two of a well-known song of yours. That's a horrible thought, because you can never be quite as good as certain first-time-round expressions of your powers."

As the interview winds down, talk inevitably drifts back to his imminent and possibly finite visibility problem.

"I've had a lot of time to recuperate," says McAloon, easily one of the best classic-pop songwriters of the past 15 years and a man unafraid of, at very least, trying to impress. "The operation is done in a day and it takes a few months to sort things out.

"Today is the first time in months I've been able to see properly. The world looks entirely different and it's quite stunning to see things with such clarity and definition."

The Gunman & Other Stories (Liberty / EMI) is currently on release

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