After the seven-year gap between 1990's Jordan: The Comeback and 1997's Andromeda Heights, many Prefab Sprout fans were surprised by the comparatively brief four years between that album and 2001's The Gunman and Other Stories. The album holds other surprises for the longtime Prefab Sprout fan; for one thing, backing vocalist Wendy Smith is absent, having left the group after the birth of her first child, and for another, it's a Western-themed concept album. Actually, though, this last shouldn't be too surprising, as singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon has had a thing for the American West as far back as the 1984 single "Don't Sing," and has always shown a love of traditional country music, as on Prefab Sprout's 1985 cover of Jim Reeves' "He'll Have to Go." That said, this album owes more to Jim Webb than Jim Reeves. In the manner of Jordan: The Comeback, this album has a nearly symphonic feeling. Veteran producer Tony Visconti is a master of balancing orchestral parts with a rock rhythm section, and so The Gunman and Other Stories is considerably less airy than Andromeda Heights, which is not to say that it rocks out or anything. The lush arrangements and just-so embellishments of strings and reeds recall the polite sterility of Visconti's '70s heyday, but as always, the melodic richness and evocative lyrics of McAloon's songs keep them from being boring, middle-of-the-road pop. The glorious love song "Blue Roses" and the unapologetically silly "Farmyard Cat," a goofy square dance played by a full string section and bleeping electronic percussion with the dopiest lyrics of McAloon's career (yes, including the chorus of "The King of Rock and Roll"), are two particularly brilliant tracks.
Still, this is not entirely top-drawer material. The title track and several other songs were originally offered to (and in some cases recorded by) other artists, including, implausibly, Cher and U.K. TV personality Jimmy Nail. As a result of this and the constraints of the overarching Western theme, this is easily McAloon's least-personal record. For the immense skill evident in the nearly nine-minute title track, a mini-operetta that encapsulates all the themes of honor, romance, and retribution at the heart of the album, there's a kind of detachment to the lyrics, a feeling that McAloon is clearly writing in character, but not investing too much in the results. This is not the worst Prefab Sprout album -- that title will forever belong to 1988's too-slick-by-half From Langley Park to Memphis -- but it pales in comparison to Paddy McAloon's best work.