There’s been a long history of pop musicians going off the deep end and into the realm of experimental music. While these flirtations have been common since the 1960s onward, some of the most fascinating cases happen when the transition comes seemingly out of the blue. Tim Buckley’s Lorca and Starsailor albums may in some ways be some of the earliest and most radical examples of this transformation, but there are also the classic instances of Scott Walker’s and Talk Talk’s dark later work, as well as David Sylvian’s gradual descent into free-jazz-afflicted folk and onkyo-obsessed songwriting. However, despite the seemingly disparate nature between these artists’ experimentally minded compositions and their more commercial work, there’s always been something of a common thread. Walker’s “Farmer in the City” could easily have fit on Scott 3; Buckley’s virtuosic singing seemed to be a natural fit for the Ligeti-esque textures he attempted with Lorca and Starsailor; and Sylvian had been working collaboratively with experimental musicians such as Jon Hassel and Holger Czukay since his debut solo album.
With Paddy McAloon’s I Trawl the Megahertz, the aesthetic continuity isn’t so readily apparent. McAloon is best known as the leader of the harmonically rich twee-pop band Prefab Sprout, whose pop perfectionism doesn’t quite prepare one for the surreal, dark world of McAloon’s lone solo record. Of course, despite Prefab’s sunny exterior, it was clear with extensive listening that the band’s songs often hid their sadness under the catchiest of tunes. Take their hit “The King of Rock n Roll,” for example: it’s a pretty silly song, until you realize the lyrics come from the perspective of a washed-up one-hit wonder whose goofiest work overshadows all of his attempts at real artistry. But maybe it’s for this reason that I Trawl the Megahertz feels like something of a shock: it wears all of its sorrow on its sleeve and does away with McAloon’s pop-song mastery in favor of minimalist orchestration, bizarrely bleak spoken word, and an undeniably chilly atmosphere.
I Trawl the Megahertz is by no means an abrasive or dissonant record, but it is undeniably idiosyncratic and heartbreaking. All of these things are apparent from the opening of the title track onward. The title track is nearly 22 minutes long and consists of a gorgeous repeated theme (McAloon’s harmonic sensibilities are still in play here) that sounds like it could soundtrack the saddest Disney movie never written, with its lurching strings, vaudevillian whistles, and ghostly guitar. Early in the work, a woman’s voice comes in and delivers blunt observational lines, like the unforgettable, “I said, ‘Your daddy loves you very much/ He just doesn’t want to live with us anymore.” It’s a beautifully powerful work that suggests what might happen if Robert Ashley’s later operas had used full orchestration and were crushingly sincere.
From there, the record moves into a frosty Philip Glass-like suite of instrumental pieces that eventually give way to the two other tracks with vocals, “I’m 49” and “Sleeping Rough.” “I’m 49” sounds quite similar to the territory that Oneohtrix Point Never has been mining recently with its pastiche of talk-show voices, electronics, and beautiful cascading arpeggios. “Sleeping Rough,” on the other hand, is an unbelievably devastating song featuring McAloon crooning like a slightly less depraved Scott Walker. “Sleeping Rough” is perhaps the only transparent reference to the experiences that inspired I Trawl the Megahertz’s elegiac glacial tone. “I’m lost, I’ll grow a long and silver beard,” McAloon sings. While this lyric could be read as a meta-commentary on the stylistic change of the record, it becomes heartbreaking when you realize that the singer/composer had temporarily gone blind due to illness while writing this material. However, despite the seemingly bleak-sounding nature of I Trawl the Megahertz’s various components, McAloon’s arrangements and tonalities make it clear that the singer remained hopeful and artistically forward-looking, despite the seemingly dire situation of his health.
Much of the album’s arrangements are quite reminiscent of a number of contemporary experimental musicians who have recently made forays into more texturally rich material. Sean McCann’s Music for Private Ensemble comes to mind when listening to the mixture of MIDI, live orchestration, and natural sounds on the album’s instrumental tracks, and the record’s title track would not feel too out of place on a Julia Holter record. McAloon may never work with this particular set of tools again, but it’s clear that he has many like-minded contemporaries employing similar resources in their own work nowadays. I Trawl the Megahertz may be an anomaly in McAloon’s discography, but it’s an anomaly that sounds more beautiful and relevant than ever.