With few exceptions, highbrow pop music-making is a commercially treacherous occupation. Nonetheless, Newcastle's Prefab Sprout something of a British answer to Steely Dan has done quite nicely, purveying evanescent music and frequently loopy subject matter. With Jordan: The Comeback, the quartet is poised to reach a wide American audience as well.
Produced with gentle grandeur by musician Thomas Dolby, the album offers a catalog of understated pop styles, all framed by the softly enunciated vocals of Wendy Smith and songwriter-guitarist Paddy McAloon. Occasionally couched in orchestral cotton wool, the 19 songs deftly incorporate such ingredients as salsa (''Carnival 2000''), wah-wah guitar (''Machine Gun Ibiza''), dance-rock (''Ice Maiden''), and streetcorner soul (''Doowop in Harlem'') without ever relinquishing the band's lushly consistent character.
For all their fascinating intelligence, McAloon's ironic lyrics can be difficult to pin down. Following the whimsical conception of ''Looking for Atlantis,'' the arch iconography of ''Jesse James Symphony,'' and the Presleyesque content of the beautiful title song (and others: Elvis is one of the album's thematic threads), it's hard to resist searching the sincere sentiments of ''All the World Loves Love'' for a subtext that isn't there. And just how seriously are we meant to take the voice of God in ''One of the Broken''? Those accustomed to musical junk food may find Jordan: The Comeback too subtle and complex at first, but this airy delicacy is a taste worth acquiring. B+