XTC - Skylarking - Review
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critics' view

Never in quite the right place at the right time, XTC might have only ever delivered near-misses, had a miserable experience not thrown up a definitive recording.

A pastoral symphony recorded several thousand miles away from the band’s Wiltshire comfort zone, in a two storey shack down the hill from producer Todd Rundgren’s Woodstock home, the undulating curves of Skylarking evoke hillside drowse, buzzing meadows and sunboiled afternoons.

The reality on the ground was a prolonged battle of wills between Rundgren and XTC’s twinkly-genial but mule-stubborn frontman Andy Partridge.”Todd and Andy were like chalk and cheese as personalities – they didn’t hit it off from the start,” recalled guitarist Dave Gregory. “Things just went from bad to worse. Andy was saying how much he hated the album, and when we returned home, he was very depressed about it – but having said that, Skylarking is probably my favourite XTC album.”

Partridge won’t go quite that far. This bucolic idyll is his second favourite. Maybe his third, after Apple Venus Volume 1 and Nonsuch. Formerly a glam band called Star Park, XTC’s fast and bulbous-eyed take on punk rock was a bit too Tiswas for contemporary hipsters, with their mildly countrified Swindon accents casting them unfairly as a new wave Troggs with art rock ideas above their station. The fact that XTC had two singers and songwriters – the manic Partridge, and Beatle-Paulish bassist Colin Moulding – further confused their pitch, and while they had proper hit singles – Moulding’s “Making Plans For Nigel” in 1979, and Partridge’s mildly regrettable “Sgt Rock (Is Going To Help Me)” in 1980 – there was always the sense that the wrong people were buying them. A top 10 smash with the game-changing ìSenses Working Overtimeî in February 1982 heralded a career-defining crisis, with chronic stagefright, blackouts and seizures prompting Partridge to retire XTC as a live act.

Whatever commercial momentum they had built up dissipated; tellingly, the increasingly intricate albums that followed 1982’s English Settlement – 1983’s Mummer and 1984’s clanky The Big Express – were comprehensively outsold by 1985’s 25 O’Clock, the patchouli-fog novelty record XTC put out as the Dukes Of Stratosphear.

Virgin records and Geffen in the US were nonetheless unwilling to give up on XTC, promising a serious effort at promoting their next album provided Partridge shut up and allowed himself to be produced. It was not an experience he was to enjoy. Lanky former Nazz man Rundgren pushed his buttons in more ways than one, and invaded his personal artistic space remorselessly; as Partridge told Uncut, the Something/Anything auteur worked out the running order of 1986’s Skylarking before the recording sessions had even begun, conceiving it as a day-to-night song cycle, a metaphor for mortality and life eternal. He also came up with a – rejected – album title and cover concept, and responded to studio disagreements by calmly walking out, inviting the band to ìdick aroundî until they realised he was right.

However, if his arrangements on Skylarking are anything to go by, he was right more often than not. The chirping cricket and pylon hum mulch under “Summer’s Cauldron”; the rapturous segue into the woozy “Grass”; the dazzling Stravinsky meets Tollund Man curlicues around cathartic closer “Sacrificial Bonfire” – all give XTC’s songs an unprecedented scope, with this ‘corrected polarity’ edition casting warm sunlight into previously shady corners. The credit is not all Rundgren’s, though. As Partridge acknowledged, Skylarking may be the only XTC album where Moulding and he seemed to be on a genuine musical par.

Regarded by Virgin as the band’s best bet in commercial terms, Moulding’s writing never had the undercurrent of mania, or the excitable twists of Partridge’s, but his weirdly inconsequential non-songwriting – simple, guileless, uncluttered – hits a lifetime-peak here. His a la recherche du temps perdu bits about summer trysts in the countryside, “Grass”, and stolen moments of passion during lunch hour, “The Meeting Place”, start Rundgren’s cycle, and two more Moulding songs end it. “Dying” is dispassionate but beautifully weighted, and if the birth-death-renewal metaphor “Sacrificial Bonfire” sounds like something Moulding cribbed out of Reader’s Digest, his John Barley-corny chorus is – in every respect – a killer: “Change must be earnt/ Sacrificial bonfire must burn up the old/Bring in the new.”

With meaningful competition on both sides of the mixing desk, Partridge did not slouch either. The lachrymose “1000 Umbrellas”, Zombies/Simon and Garfunkel melange “Season Cycle” and “Summer’s Cauldron” – a hedgerow tour de force which memorably finds him “floating round and round, like a bug in brandy” – perfect the meandering melodies and juddering turns of tempo he played for fun with the Dukes of Stratosphear. Even the revved up “Earn Enough For Us” – a reasonably straight depiction of the struggles of a family making ends meet – fits perfectly here. For while the concept is high, Skylarking’s drama is low; small certainties and microscopic revelations predominate – which might explain why “Dear God”, with its everyman assault on theology, still doesn’t quite belong. Transfixed – like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks or the Incredible String Band’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter – by the simultaneous bigness and smallness of everything, Skylarking discovers eternal truths in the everyday. “A song as new as new moon, as old as all the sands,” chirrups Partridge with ecstatic urgency on east-west rhapsody “Mermaid Smiled.”

Timeless, in other words.

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Est. 2007, Uncut magazine, trademarked as UNCUT, is a monthly publication based in London. It is available across the English-speaking world, and focuses on music, but also includes film and books sections. "The spiritual home of great rock music. Classic interviews, in-depth new album reviews, essential news stories, live reviews, films, DVDs and much more."
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