My favorite albums: ‘Skylarking’

From Astralwerks.

Update, 11:10 a.m. The @xtcfans account, which is the voice of Colin Moulding Andy Partridge (ack! I was so rattled I referred to the wrong guy), responded to my use of the phrase “still sniping at Rundgren” in this entry:

My apologies for the glibness (and for referring originally NOT to “that bloke, the smart arsed one with the glasses”). The sentence has been changed.

Every so often, an act comes along that, based on tunefulness and wit, is likened to the Beatles. Emitt Rhodes was the “one-man Beatles” in the early ’70s; Squeeze, led by the songwriting team of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, were the Beatlesque group of the early ’80s.

(Incidentally, apropos of nothing, here’s Emitt Rhodes on “The Dating Game”:)

And then there was XTC.

It was hard to know what to make of the English quartet, later a trio, as they put out albums such as “Drums and Wires” and “The Big Express.” Their songs were obviously pop, or pop-rock — how else can you describe “Life Begins at the Hop” or “Senses Working Overtime”? — but there was always something off-kilter about them, something angular and discordant: more art than pop.

Ironically, they were most Beatlesque when not being XTC, as when they masqueraded as the psychedelic band the Dukes of Stratosphear in 1985 and 1987. “Collideoscope” would have fit right in on “Revolver.” (OK, maybe the Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request.”)

So when the news came out that XTC was going to be making an album with Todd Rundgren, himself an occasional one-man Beatles, it was like news from pop heaven. Finally! A producer who could smooth out XTC’s loose ends and rein in their stranger impulses.

It worked out — and it didn’t work out.

Rundgren got involved at the suggestion of the band’s label, Virgin, and immediately shaped the band’s new tunes into a thematic cycle about birth, life and death. XTC’s Andy Partridge didn’t like the idea.

“Todd and Andy were like chalk and cheese as personalities, they didn’t hit it off from the start. Things just went from bad to worse,” the band’s Dave Gregory said.

And yet, what emerged in late 1986 is probably the band’s tightest record. (The only other XTC record that comes close, in my opinion, is 1992’s “Nonsuch,” produced by another pop master, Gus Dudgeon.) The songs have an effortless flow, starting with the pastoral “Summer’s Cauldron,” which begins with the sound of electronic insects. “Ballet for a Rainy Day,” with its chiming piano, and “Season Cycle,” featuring rich harmonies, may be the most hummable songs in the XTC canon.

And then things grow darker, with a scrappy guitar-driven ode to marriage and hustle, “Earn Enough for Us”; the dim “Another Satellite”; and the two songs that conclude the album, the groping “Dying” and the genuinely moving “Sacrificial Bonfire.”

And in the middle of all that — first scheduled on the album, then taken off, then hastily added after it became a surprise hit — is “Dear God,” Partridge’s haunting message about doubt and atheism.

In 1987 you couldn’t get away from the video on MTV.

Almost 30 years later, the album still holds up. (In a recent development, a remastering engineer figured out the album had been released with some sound issues; a 2014 re-release was allegedly punchier. Another re-release is due in October.) It’s the perfect album for a blissful summer’s day — or, if you’re feeling put-upon on a gray winter’s eve, it works for that, too.

Even Partridge came around about the album, though he still has reservations about Rundgren’s behavior. (Incidentally, you should see the cover he wanted to do. In fact, now you can.)

“Musician and producer Todd Rundgren squeezed the XTC clay into its most complete/connected/cyclical record ever,” he wrote in 1992. “Not an easy album to make for various ego reasons but time has humbled me into admitting that Todd conjured up some of the most magical production and arranging conceivable.”

Well, not even the Beatles got along with George Martin every day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s