XTC: A Secret Obsession
XTC is a band that has been around for over three decades, has released a consecutive string of nine outstanding albums, has two of the best songwriters of the past 35 years (Colin Moulding and especially Andy Partridge), yet most people are familiar with only two of their songs: Making Plans For Nigel (from Drums and Wires) and Dear God (a single, later added to the album Skylarking after it became an unexpected hit).
Whatever the case, like the mighty and underappreciated Nick Lowe, this band warrants some serious attention.
XTC has evolved over time from a jerky new wave explosion of a band into a lyrically sardonic and lushly orchestrated pop music behemoth that inspires a fanatical fan following.
Drums And Wires, their third proper album, contains their biggest hit to date in Making Plans For Nigel, one of my favorites. Their humor and quirky wordplay remained intact, but the bigger sound on this particular album proved a turning point for the band.
Black Sea and English Settlement, their next two albums, see XTC rocking harder than ever before, but a shift in direction towards mid sixties British Psychedelia was becoming evident, especially in the excellent tracks Respectable Street, Towers of London and Generals And Majors (from Black Sea), Ball and Chain and Senses Working Overtime (from English Settlement).
After some massive critical attention and an exhausting touring schedule took it’s toll, lead dude Andy Partridge suffered a mental breakdown (given his well documented stage fright ‘issues’, it was inevitable), which ultimately led to the bands retirement from touring. It has been said that Mummer, their next album, is very much the work of an “eccentric in isolation”, with Partridge writing 13 of the album’s 16 songs. A much more subdued and uneven affair than it’s predecessors, it is awash with some truly excellent acoustic music full of inspiration and pastoral English imagery, sounding not unlike another undervalued songwriter from the Isles (I’m talking about you, Mr. Ray Davies!)
1984’s The Big Express saw yet another stylistic change in the bands direction, this time utilizing the extra time away from the road to take full advantage of the studio, and from the first listen it certainly becomes apparent that something has changed, and for the better. Painstakingly detailed and sonically lush, this albums sonic innovations would inspire Partridge and Moulding to go even further with their next album, Skylarking, their undisputed masterpiece.
Released in 1986, Skylarking was a revelation. The band totally and unapologetically jettisoned its new wave roots in favor of the sounds of the Beach Boys and the Beatles, circa 1965-1967. Produced by Todd Rundgren , who tightened up XTC’s sound considerably for this album, it contained some of the best tunes of the bands career: Summer’s Cauldron, Grass, Season Cycle and Dear God (as mentioned earlier, this was a late addition, but fit’s the albums mood and flow perfectly). The detailed, sweeping instrumentation coupled with improved songwriting (some would say perfect songwriting) make this XTC’s Greatest Acheivement, IMHO.
Oranges and Lemons is where the band fully embrace psychedelia (just look at the cover, for God’s sake!), and Nonesuch (1992) is simply a massive, lovingly crafted record almost the equal of Skylarking, becoming especially evident while listening to the 17 tracks back to back without interruption. Although not as thematically coherent as Skylarking nor quite as goofy or eclectic as Oranges and Lemons, this album maintains its position with me as their 3rd best album. Their 2nd best album, in my humble opinion, came next…
After a seven year sabbatical (!) the band return in 1999 with Apple Venus Pt. 1. This is a beautiful and ambitious record, although it certainly has some very dark moments as well. On the lighter side is “I’d Like That”, a song in which Partridge channels Paul McCartney to great effect, and on the darker side is “Your Dictionary”, probably the bitterest lyric Partridge has ever penned. Here’s a sample:
Lush and melancholy, exuberant and sad, Apple Venus Pt. 1 will stand the test of time. Even though it contains shades of the old XTC, it stands out as probably being the most unique album in a catalogue full of unique albums.
Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Pt. 2) is more…normal. Sharp, witty, classic XTC songs are all over this album, and although it is very, very good, it kind of pales in comparison next to the grand statement of Apple Venus.
Even though the band has done many interesting and competent side projects over the years, it is as the Dukes Of Stratosphere that is the most satisfying. This was an opportunity for the band to really indulge in their love of Revolver era psychedelia, cranking out the fuzz guitars, backwards sound effects and trippy lyrics to great effect. If you can find it, get the collection Chips From The Chocolate Fireball.
XTC are the great lost pop band, tragically ignored by the majority but followed obsessively by fanatical lovers of great music all over the globe. It is impossible to have only one XTC album in your collection, but if you’re a newbie go with Skylarking. Then get all the rest.