PREFAB SPROUT Andromeda Heights (Columbia/Kitchenware)

The Sprout’s fifth album, nearly seven years in the making, turns out not to be the epic Biblical concept album that Paddy McAloon was rumoured to be working on, but rather "A Slightly Longer Album About Love", twelve songs that, with a few possible exceptions (a get-out clause to cover the fact that I only bought it yesterday!), deal with the making and breaking of emotional bonds and suchlike. Which is all sweet and dandy (perhaps excessively, in the case of the former), but a little frail and insubstantial-looking after the scope and raging ambition that characterised their last album, the marvellous "Jordan: The Comeback".

What "Andromeda Heights" makes plain is that, this time round at least, is that Paddy McAloon wants to be the new Bacharach and David: check out the massive Brill Building intro to "A Prisoner Of The Past" - you half expect Scott Walker to turn up and burst into "The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore" - and the guitar solo that closes the track just has to be an ‘affectionate homage’ to the one on The Walker Brothers’ "No Regrets". Elsewhere there’s finely tuned, delicate orchestrations by the chocolate box-load - they may sound painfully saccharine on first acquaintance, bit that’s probably because they’re honed just so - and melodies that initially appear to have been thrown together that will eventually attain classic stature.

Then there’s McAloon’s lyrics, and the way he croons and coos them as well: whether it’s the gentle rib tickling of "Electric Guitars" ("We were songbirds, we were Greek Gods/We were singled out by fate/We were quoted out of context - it was great") or the alternative design for life of "Life’s A Miracle", it’s obvious that he means it man, is for real, in ways that few, if any, other lyricists working in popular music today could ever elucidate.

It seems almost incidental to point out the calibre of the crack team of sidemen that accompany the three remaining Sprouts here, but they include jazz musicians Martin Taylor (who flavours "Anne Marie" with a gorgeously understated guitar solo) and Tommy Smith, as well as Blue Nile alumnus Calum Malcolm (so that’s why it took so long to make...).

"Andromeda Heights" may not be Prefab Sprout’s greatest album, well, not yet anyway, but it is an impeccably polished, grown up piece of work in a canon distinguished by its fully-formed maturity. It’s as if Steely Dan made an album of love songs - an impossibly wonderful idea, of course, but if it ever became reality I reckon it would sound very much like this, in concept if not execution. "Andromeda Heights" is a jewel-box (yes, I’m not even going to complain that I had to buy the CD out of necessity) of delights, which, of its kind, is almost as good as the last Blue Nile album.

PREFAB SPROUT The Gunman And Other Stories (Liberty)

"The Gunman And Other Stories" is the first new Prefab Sprout album to emerge since 1997's exquisite "Andromeda Heights", and also the first for their new label. The title might lead the listener to expect a swathe of epic narrative, or something similar to the loosely woven conceptual thread that linked the nineteen songs of "Jordan: The Comeback" together, but unfortunately "The Gunman And Other Stories" never really aspires to that level of skyscraping ambition. What it is is Paddy McAloon's country and western album, albeit only to the extent that he's operating under the mistaken assumption that adding the odd banjo lick to his band's immaculately constructed chocolate box AOR and writing songs about cowboys, farms and card games will suddenly turn him into Neil Young in ranch porch mode. Which hasn't really happened here: the fact that the opening song, "Cowboy Dreams", originally featured on Jimmy Nail's "Crocodile Shoes" soundtrack amply illustrates the gulf between ambition and execution.

Last time around the Sprout's understated eloquence took a few more spins than had been usual to get under my skin, but the effort was amply rewarded: "Andromeda Heights" was as perfect an album of paeans to the redemptive power of love as I can recall. But no matter how many times I hear "The Gunman And Other Stories" I can't help feeling that there's nothing here beneath Tony Visconti's immaculate production and some loose talk of Laredo. What puts the remains of the album into context is the first single, "Cornfield Ablaze", which, despite or because of its melodic similarity to "Moondog" on "Jordan: The Comeback", is crackling, classic Sprout, all perfectly executed metaphor and rattling, memorable tune. But, unfortunately, it doesn't make a summer, and it leaves "The Gunman And Other Stories" looking like that thankfully rare beast, an inessential Prefab Sprout album.

Paddy McAloon