Album of the Week, November 16: Skylarking by XTC

XTCSkylarkingXTC formed in the early 1970s in Swindon, England. Andy Partridge (vocals, guitars), Colin Moulding (vocals, bass) and Terry Chambers (drums) started with influences from the Glam movement, performing as Star Park and the Helium Kidz. By 1976, keyboard player Barry Andrews came aboard. The band began incorporating sounds from the New York punk movement and settled on the name XTC. After two well-received albums of edgy punk-pop, Andrews left the band (going on to form Shriekback), replaced by Dave Gregory who also played guitar. The group’s sound gradually became more melodic, with the punk edges giving way to more polished pop gems with just a bit of bite. Partridge, who had always suffered from stage fright, had a breakdown during their 1982 tour. As a result, the band gave up touring and Chambers left, not interested in being part of a studio-only unit. Two more albums and a number of side projects later, the studio trio of Partridge/Moulding/Gregory was critically acclaimed but not achieving great chart success, especially in the US. Given a list of producers by their label, they picked Todd Rundgren, a name they recognized from his work with their early idols the New York Dolls.

Title Skylarking
Act XTC
Label Virgin/Geffen Release Date October 27, 1986
Producer Todd Rundgren
U.S. Chart  70 U.K. Chart  90
Tracks
  1. Summer’s Cauldron
  2. Grass
  3. The Meeting Place
  4. That’s Really Super, Supergirl
  5. Ballet For A Rainy Day
  6. 1000 Umbrellas
  7. Season Cycle
  8. Earn Enough For Us
  9. Big Day
  10. Another Satellite
  11. Mermaid Smiled
  12. The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul
  13. Dear God
  14. Dying
  15. Sacrificial Bonfire

The album is notorious for the difficult recording sessions. Tensions — especially between Rundgren and Partridge — made the creation of the album painful for everyone. Despite this difficulty, the final result is a polished, cohesive masterpiece, critically lauded with some commercial success, and eventually praised by all the participants. Partridge noted years later:

[Rundgren] did do great things musically. The arrangements were brilliant and I don’t know how he came up with them… The bloke is ludicrously smart when it comes to certain things.

Drawing its name from Shelley’s poem To A Skylark and its day-in-the-life concept from the band’s decade-long evolution and some shared enthusiasm with Rundgren for the Beach Boys and the Kinks, the song cycle is a wonderful, brilliantly sequenced flow of music. Things kick off with Summer’s Cauldron, Partridge’s celebration of nature’s joys. It’s a wonderful start, opening the disc with enthusiasm and brightness. Moulding’s Grass segues in nicely, a bit of nostalgic wordplay about amorous pursuits. His The Meeting Place follows, a perfect snapshot of early romance, with all the emotions lovingly sketched in song. This trio of lovely vignettes sets the stage, showing band at their musical peak, challenged to turn out their finest work.

That’s Really Super, Supergirl is a bitter love-gone-wrong track by Partridge, showing off his trademark wry analyses. He sings of the frustrations of dating a woman who has a split identity and the power to see through walls, somehow making the extraordinary super-heroic romance resonate with everyday frustrations. It’s one of the band’s best songs, buoyed by music that soars like the title character as the frustrated suitor is left on the ground.

The next two tracks form a Partridge-penned mini-suite, looking at rainy weather through two divergent lenses. Ballet For A Rainy Day is a celebration of nature and joy, a nice fit for the pastoral themes that run through much of the disc. Its uplift is pulled down by 1000 Umbrellas, a series of watery metaphors for coping with the end of a relationship. Each song is wonderful; as a pair, they are a moment of musical inspiration.

Season Cycle is a solid centerpiece for the album, an ode to the forces of nature and the cycles that run our lives. Seriously joyful and smilingly somber, it captures the spirit of the disc and moves the listener to the heavier themes of the second half. Earn Enough For Us is reminiscent of the earlier Love On A Farmboy’s Wages, but a bit grittier. A determined plea to make ends meet in Thatcher’s England, it manages to wring enough hope from the despair to shine with real humanity. Big Day is a similarly two-fold track, Moulding’s pensive look at marriage as a celebration and a serious undertaking. This is another smart pairing in the wonderful sequence of songs.

Another Satellite is one of Partridge’s best songs, inspired by a reluctant flirtation that eventually ended his marriage. It’s a haunting song with powerful, echoing keyboards and a fragile, distant vocal. The lunar imagery fits the natural tone of the album at an appropriate remove, allowing the dark tune to fit into the cycle nicely.

Mermaid Smiled is a fine but lightweight track that was quickly removed from the U.S. release to make way for a later single. The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul is a charming, jazzy experiment, a pleasant enough song that doesn’t quite fit on an otherwise tightly constructed album. The two tracks don’t detract from Skylarking, but they’re close to filler.

Dear God, on the other hand, is a powerful afterthought. Recorded after the album and released as a single, it was successful enough to be added to the U.S. version of the album in place of Mermaid Smiled. A bitter broadside at a hypothetical all-powerful force who allows too much suffering, it features one of Partridge’s most powerful vocals as he presents his outrage. Another stunning moment of brilliance, it belongs to the album and adds just the right moment before the final pair.

Moulding’s Dying and Sacrificial Bonfire wrap things up. The first is a quiet look at a couple near the end of their days. It implies a long, probably happy time together, but the spectre of mortality brings a bitter edge to the narrator’s nostalgia. Bonfire takes all the darkness that weaves through the life cycles of the album and purges them, offering a striking anthem of hope and rejuvenation. It’s a fitting end for a stunning set.

FURTHER LISTENING: XTC’s gradual evolution from edge punkish pop to lush pastoral rock is a fascinating journey with many wonderful songs. The seven prior to Skylarking all have a slightly transitional feel as the very talented band members stretch themselves into new musical shapes. The best of these is the edgy, New Wavish Drums and Wires, a fairly cohesive set with some of their best songs. The two that follow the masterpiece are very consistent, well-executed sets, with Nonsuch being more cohesive and Oranges and Lemons offering more delightful high points. After a long, label-battling hiatus, they released two more discs before slowly dissolving as each member of the trio pursued his own interests. Fossil Fuel is a great two-disc set from 1992 that shows off  most of their best songs.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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