XTC, “SKYLARKING”

Skylarking

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #24 – released October 27, 1986. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 2/15/2015.)

Track listing: Summer’s Cauldron / Grass / The Meeting Place / That’s Really Super, Supergirl / Ballet For A Rainy Day / 1,000 Umbrellas / Season Cycle / Earn Enough For Us / Big Day / Another Satellite / Mermaid Smiled / The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul / Dear God / Dying / Sacrificial Bonfire

In the four years between English Settlement and this record, XTC lost a bit of their mojo. Some blamed Andy Partridge’s refusal to tour anymore, rendering the band entirely studio-bound; others cited drummer Terry Chambers’ sudden departure (not unrelated to no longer touring). Mummer (1983) and The Big Express (1984) have their moments but neither album is as consistent or convincing as the three preceding them. Partridge’s settling for the studio cuts both ways, suitably buffing his newfound pastoral nature into a fine folk-pop sheen (“Love On A Farmboy’s Wages”) while using this retreat as an excuse to spew bitter venom about the music business (“Funk Pop A Roll”, “I Bought Myself A Liarbird”). In either case, the public didn’t buy it—25 O’Clock, an EP of late ’60s pastiches the band released in 1985 under pseudonym The Dukes of Stratosphear sold more than The Big Express in the UK!

Thus, their label Virgin insisted the band hire an outside producer for their next record and gave them a list of names; they picked Todd Rundgren, a pop polymath best known for his ‘70s singer/songwriter hits “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw The Light” but also a seasoned studio wiz, having produced the likes of the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Meat Loaf, etc.; Not that XTC hadn’t employed producers on their previous albums, but Rundgren took charge to a far greater degree than any of them—supposedly, after the band sent him their demos, he shaped and sequenced the whole album before any of them set foot in his recording studio in Woodstock, New York. Naturally, Rundgren and Partridge (who was used to having more control) clashed throughout the making of Skylarking and never worked together again, but even Partridge now admits the final result is one of their better albums.

I’d go as far to say that most days I think Skylarking is the band’s best album, partially thanks to Rundgren’s overseeing. What immediately sets it apart (and above) the previous two records is a unified structure, its songs passing through two recognizable, interrelated cycles: The Seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter) and Life itself (birth, death, rebirth). Granted, not every single moment fully adheres to these trajectories (for complex reasons we’ll address later), but the songs more or less superficially fit together in this way, making for arguably the first XTC album as obsessed with the whole enchilada as each individual trinket. In addition to following a tighter structure, Partridge and Colin Moulding also each contribute a strong set of tunes, as if they’ve crossed that threshold from touring to studio band, at last mastering the type of composition best suited to the latter arena.

Skylarking’s unification is further heightened by how some songs are deliberately crafted to either thematically complement each other or literally flow into one another. “Summer’s Cauldron” opens the album in a gauzy, blissful haze of humid but sparkling light psychedelia. As its chorus builds for the final time, gaining momentum, instead of a pause, a new chord and melody immediately announces the next track, “Grass”. With an almost East Asian-like fanfare, the song sustains the previous track’s tone, only wedding it to a lyric about making love out in the open. Concluding “Grass” with a musical callback to the beginning of “Summer’s Cauldron” nourishes the connection between the two tracks even further. Similarly, a few songs later, when the relatively laid-back “Ballet For A Rainy Day” reaches the last word of its final chorus, it ends on a slightly different chord than the previous choruses, instantly going right in to the swirling, string-laden “1,000 Umbrellas”, which sounds not too far off from the quirky psych-orchestral pop Prince was dabbling in on Parade at the time.

“The Meeting Place”, with its playful, faux-mechanical arrangement and crystalline chorus continues the cheerfully idyllic mood of the first two tracks. Some might argue “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” pushes it further, maybe even too far into self-parody. Fortunately, Partridge is a master of imbuing precious and coy subject matter with enough care and ingenuity that it becomes digestible through the sheer force of its melodicism and musicality—just listen to those intricate backing vocal overdubs or how easily and unexpectedly the band arrives at that chord change before the chorus. “Season Cycle” does a similar thing only with the chorus feeling more like a natural extension of each verse. Coming just about right in the middle of Skylarking, it blatantly reiterates the album’s overarching themes; it’s also significant for being the first XTC song with a heavy Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys influence, which will surface repeatedly throughout much of the band’s subsequent work.

The general air of optimism and breeziness gives way to weightier themes and somewhat darker (and more varied) moods on Skylarking’s second half. However, the song that kicks it off is one of XTC’s most triumphant: “Earn Enough For Us” is a socio-economical sketch both musically and lyrically worthy of the Kinks, driven by a classic guitar riff and an impassioned sense of both defiance and pride (“Just because we’re on the bottom of the ladder / we shouldn’t be sadder / than others like us / who have goals for the betterment of life”). It’s certainly one of the catchiest, most urgent working class anthems of the ‘80s (why in the world wasn’t it picked as a single outside Canada and Australia?). Moulding’s “Big Day” takes a few steps back from the previous song’s family-struggling-to-make-a-living to where it all began, pondering getting hitched with equal anticipation and dread as autumnal, chiming 12-string guitars signal colder weather ahead.

At this point, the album’s concept wavers a bit. In contrast to everything preceding it, “Another Satellite” feels like an outlier, a remnant from the band’s prog-rock recent past, although the sweet harmonies rub up nicely against the flanged synth-guitar hook and the song’s spacious, echo-y arrangement. Then, things get a little complicated. Initial pressings of Skylarking included “Mermaid Smiled” a brief, nautical-themed, showtune-ready sigh of a song, followed by “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”, a jazzy spy music pastiche that, like “Season Cycle”, introduced another new path the band would develop further on later albums. However, after “Dear God” (the B-side of the “Grass” single) actually started to get radio and MTV airplay, it was added to the album (placed after “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”) and “Mermaid Smiled” was deleted—“something had to go and so I took off the shortest song,” said Partridge. While not especially profound, “Mermaid Smiled” is charming, buoyant and a good lead-in to “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”. It really should’ve remained on Skylarking (with it, the album still clocks in at under 50 minutes), which is why I’ve kept it in the tracking listing here. (If your copy doesn’t have it, you can find it on the band’s 1990 rarities comp Rag and Bone Buffet.)

Although “Dear God” was the album’s biggest hit, it doesn’t fit too comfortably on Skylarking. Despite encouragement from his bandmates and Rundgren to include it, Partridge was never at ease trying to write about his atheism: “such a big subject… in three-and-a-half-minutes,” he lamented. Still, what three-and-a-half minutes! With an eight-year-old girl (played by a boy in the iconic music video) singing the entire first verse, “Dear God” grabs hold of the listener right at the start; then the drums kick in and the minor-key acoustic arrangement turns electric as Partridge sings the second verse. A string quartet slowly creeps in, at times sinister enough to peel paint off the walls (think of the strings in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”). The whole track builds to a ferocious final minute where Partridge lays out his blasphemy with eloquent but intense, blunt force. Arguably the catchiest and most original single in the band’s catalogue since “Senses Working Overtime”, the song repositioned them as both modern rock stars and controversial figures in America, even inspiring a firebomb threat to a Florida radio station and moving one college student to hold his principal hostage at knifepoint, demanding that the song be played over the school’s PA system. To this day, it’s still one of XTC’s best-known songs in the US; although aesthetically Skylarking doesn’t need it, without it, the album might’ve fallen into obscurity.

Thankfully, the band chose to keep the closing sequence intact and not tack “Dear God” on at the end, even if the overlapping transition between it and the penultimate track “Dying” jars a little. But these two final songs, both written by Moulding are essential to Skylarking’s allure. “Dying”, like nearly every other XTC song of this period contains a healthy dose of Beatles-isms: it could be a track off The “White” Album or side two of Abbey Road. However, it’s more of a link to “Sacrificial Bonfire”, one of Moulding’s very best songs and the latest in a long line of spectacular XTC album closers. Over tumbling percussion, an almost classical-sounding guitar riff provides the hook, while deftly employed orchestration carefully draws us further in, the strings eventually mirroring that initial riff. Moulding sings, “Burnt up the old / ring in the new,” and later, “Reign over good / burnish the bad.” Rebirth may be an obvious theme to end on here, but it’s an effective, compelling one for the sense of majesty and sincere awe the melody and arrangement together conjure up. Skylarking is nearly a perfect circle of an album—as “Sacrificial Bonfire” fades out, I recommend utilizing the “repeat all” function on whatever listening format you prefer, for that opening instrumental haze of “Summer’s Cauldron” becomes more enticing and resonant with each passing cycle.

Up next: Lonesome for a place I know.

“Summer’s Cauldron/Grass”:

 

“Earn Enough For Us”:

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