XTC, “Nonsuch”

nonsuch

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #32 – released April 1992)

Track listing: The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead / My Bird Performs / Dear Madam Barnum / Humble Daisy / The Smartest Monkeys / The Disappointed / Holly Up On Poppy / Crocodile / Rook / Omnibus / That Wave / Then She Appeared / War Dance / Wrapped In Grey / The Ugly Underneath / Bungalow / Books Are Burning

Three years after Skylarking resuscitated XTC’s career in America, this venerable British trio released Oranges and Lemons, a double album packed with big, bold psychedelic pop. Amiable lead single “The Mayor of Simpleton” topped Billboard’s Modern Rock chart (and also became the band’s sole song to make the magazine’s Hot 100 singles chart); it was also the first XTC album I ever heard. For that reason, I still retain a soft spot for it, despite its numerous flaws (the production’s a little dated and it could’ve greatly benefited from being ten or twelve tracks long instead of fifteen). Still, I nearly wrote about it here instead of the band’s next album, Nonsuch, debating between the two for some time.

On first listen, Nonsuch seemingly has the same exact flaws as its more-celebrated predecessor: it’s even two tracks longer and the production also occasionally betrays its age (particularly when synthesizers stand in for real woodwinds, like the faux-clarinet providing the main hook in “War Dance”, which bandleader Andy Partridge likened to a “singing penis”.) Not wanting to employ Skylarking’s Todd Rundgren or Paul Fox (the novice/XTC superfan who helmed Oranges and Lemons) again, the band ended up with Gus Dudgeon, best known for producing Elton John’s classic album run in the early-mid ‘70s. As vividly detailed in the book Song Stories, the flamboyant, older Dudgeon instantly clashed with the band and Partridge in particular, whom Dudgeon barred from attending the original mix sessions (which turned out disastrously, ending up with Gus getting the sack and a replacement engineer hired to finish the album).

Despite all this behind-the-scenes drama, Nonsuch turned out a coherent, consistent record. Somehow, all of these disparate-sounding songs seem to fit together to the degree that the band can get away with barely including a pause between some of the tracks; the transitions, too, are often stunning, the sweetness of “Then She Appeared” magically emerging from the cacophony that closes out “That Wave”, or the ambiguous ending of “Rook” nearly resolved by the abrupt but welcoming upbeat, declarative intro of “Omnibus”. On the whole, it has arguably aged better than any other late-period XTC release except for Skylarking. As usual, the band were slightly out of step with the times—released at the height of grunge, Nonsuch may have found a wider audience had it come out two years before (building on the momentum of Oranges and Lemons) or perhaps two years later (just in time for Britpop, which would not have existed without the band’s massive influence).

Nonsuch’s first three tracks comprise one of the strongest opening sequences in the band’s oeuvre: a grand, epic-length story song brimming with allegory and blaring harmonica, “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” became XTC’s second (and final) number one US Modern Rock hit; if the band had never quit touring, one can imagine it as the likeliest song fans would sing along with in concert (next to “Senses Working Overtime”) given its simple yet immediate melody. “My Bird Performs”, the buoyant Colin Moulding song that follows is one of his best, all ringing guitars and romantic (but relatable) proclamations, sweetened by Guy Barker’s trumpet and Partridge’s effortless swoon of a backing vocal. And “Dear Madam Barnum” exhibits Partridge’s prowess in wrapping both the political (alternate title: “Dear Margaret Thatcher”) and the personal (nearly anticipating his forthcoming divorce from wife Marianne) in a catchy, confident jangle-pop package.

The rest of Nonsuch has no shortage of potential singles. An actual one, “The Disappointed”, was the band’s first UK top 40 hit in ten years, an anthem for broken hearts that’s both full of longing and defiantly upbeat, thanks to the charge of the guitars and the propelling beat under all that stirring orchestration. “Crocodile” covers the same ground lyrically but is far more playful, its loping, nagging rhythm an ideal foundation for the band to rock out with wicked exuberance. “Then She Appeared” is almost retro-goofy enough for the Dukes of Stratosphear, and while Partridge didn’t rate it too highly, Dudgeon was correct to think this gleaming slice of sunshine pop should have been a single. “Books Are Burning” shows that even this late in the game, XTC always ended their albums with a stunner, in this case a stately, bluesy hymn to the sanctity of the written word, played off by dueling guitar solos and a nice, if brief “Hey Jude”-like coda.

As with most XTC LPs, scattered in between all the perfect three (and four, and five) minute pop songs are peculiar, challenging and often just plain weird experiments that distinguish Nonsuch from anything else of its time. The latest in a string of Brian Wilson pastiches stretching back to Skylarking’s “Season Cycle”, “Humble Daisy” conjures a floating dreamland out of Mellotron, impish, electric harpsichord and a melody that repeatedly emerges and vanishes like the tides. A few shades darker, “That Wave” almost threatens to totally freak out, albeit in slow motion with Partridge’s elastic vocal rising and descending like a blustery wind, the song ending in a reverberating wash of noise. “The Ugly Underneath” goes to further extremes: a sinus-clearing stomp where Partridge sounds as youthful and incensed as he did thirteen years before on Drums and Wires (dig the way he lends the word “underneath” two extra syllables), it’s the loudest track here—that is, until the coda, an extended moment of grace where a regal, beatific organ calmly reprises the chorus’ melody.

Even Moulding stretches a bit on two of his four compositions. From its first isolated, echoing guitar chords, you can detect the stillness, the wonderment and yes, the pretentiousness in “The Smartest Monkeys” and you would not be laughed out of the room if you mistook it for a Yes or Genesis album cut. And yet, it’s as melodically sound and everyman-focused as any of Moulding’s songs that you can almost forgive him for including that exceptionally wonky synth solo. Just as arty but far more dissonant, “Bungalow” evokes the remote, foggy, grey British seaside with as much detail as Morrissey’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday”. However, Moulding is more an observer than a critic—although this curious little reverie doesn’t lack melancholia, it ultimately feels wistful, lovingly detailing a crumbling paradise that has lost more than a bit of luster but retains its special, almost enviable otherness.

Still, it’s Partridge who provides Nonsuch with two songs that are among the furthest reaching and most affecting in his career. Both convey a newfound maturity suggesting a willingness to age gracefully rather than try to foolishly recapture past triumphs. “Rook” opens with a contemplative sequence of isolated, elongated piano chords, each one occurring before the previous one entirely disappears. The simple yet inquisitive melody lands somewhere between pop and modern classical while the nimble orchestration subtly weaves in and out of the background. What’s played carries as much weight as what isn’t played, while the enigmatic lyrics (“is that my name on the bell?”) conjure up themes of mortality and the meaning of existence.

“Wrapped In Grey” also opens with piano, the chords this time straight out of the Bacharach/David songbook. Accompanying orchestration soon follows, while Partridge tenderly sings of how “Some folks see the world as a stone / concrete daubed in dull monotone.” He likens one’s heart to a “big box of paints” and references “the canvas we’re dealt.” After the first verse, the instrumentation takes over, only briefly, until the music suddenly rises, the chords changing from minor to major and the whole song soaring on a magisterial chorus that concludes with Partridge urging, “Don’t let the loveless ones sell you a world wrapped in grey.” This most moving and wise song is where Partridge ceases paying tribute to Brian Wilson and turns out something as powerful and unique as anything the latter ever did, especially when the song ends on an unexpectedly playful ascending coda.

Portions of Nonsuch displayed such intriguing artistic growth that most fans could hardly wait to see what XTC would do next. Unfortunately, that wait extended to seven years because of a stalemate between the band and its record label. Apple Venus (1999) encouragingly built on Nonsuch’s most innovative advances, utilizing palettes both orchestral (“Easter Theatre”) and acoustic (“Knights In Shining Karma”). If the electric guitar-heavy Wasp Star (2000) was less consistent, it still carried a handful of gems (“Stupidly Happy”, “The Wheel and The Maypole”) that would be career highlights for scores of lesser bands. Regrettably, XTC disintegrated as multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory quit in the middle of recording Apple Venus and Moulding stopped returning Partridge’s calls in the early 00’s. And as much as I wish Partridge would get it together and record a proper solo pop record, I am content with the dozen or so albums XTC left behind. They are a band ripe for rediscovery, a bedroom Beatles, a post-punk Kinks, cult artists who often lived up to their popular influences and occasionally transcended them.

Up next: Redemption via compilation.

“Wrapped In Grey”:

 

“My Bird Performs”:

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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”: