(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #17 – released February 12, 1982. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 11/24/2014.)
Track listing: Runaways / Ball and Chain / Senses Working Overtime / Jason and the Argonauts / No Thugs In Our House / Yacht Dance / All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late) / Melt The Guns / Leisure / It’s Nearly Africa / Knuckle Down / Fly On the Wall / Down In the Cockpit / English Roundabout / Snowman
“This is one more double album that would make a nifty single” is what Robert Christgau wrote about Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (a record I briefly considered including in this project); I don’t fully agree, but I understand his reasoning. Depending on who you ask, the double album is either one of popular music’s greatest innovations, allowing for extended output from an artist at his or her peak, or the worst thing to ever happen to the format itself, encouraging excess and self indulgence from bands who could barely produce enough solid material for two sides of vinyl, let alone four. Of course, a double album’s effectiveness all comes down to the individual artist, their talent, and whether they’re in a place where they can pull it off—after all, just three years on from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, John released another, decidedly less successful double album, Blue Moves, of which Christgau said in his review, “As my wife commented in all innocence of who was on, ‘What is this tripe?’”
Like all terrific single albums, the best double albums are often a snapshot of an artist at a creative high (Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, The Clash’s London Calling) or a commercial one (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life). Such factors aside, it really depends on their ability to hold a listener’s interest for well over an hour instead of the usual 30-45 minute duration. This is easier said than done, as we’ll only encounter a handful of double albums in this project. The first is the fifth album from XTC, a British post-punk group who formed in 1977 and remained active up until 2000. Too revered and well-known to be considered a cult band, but not enough to ever become a household name or score a US top 40 hit, they’re an act whom, at their most accessible moments engages one to question why the heck they were never half as big as The Police, U2 or any of their more recognized contemporaries. Listen to any of their albums and the answer’s immediately apparent: stubbornly foraging their own path through the music industry, XTC rarely shielded their quirks and singularities. They arguably made great pop music, but didn’t particularly worry about making it appeal to everyone. The few “hits” scattered throughout their catalog are those rare, serendipitous instances when their notion of pop nearly aligned with the rest of the world’s.
By 1982, XTC barely resembled the band they were five years before, despite having had only one personnel change in the interim. On their early recordings, which the band’s primarily vocalist/songwriter Andy Partridge has all but disavowed, they spat out herky-jerky, jagged-edged pop punk, their sound deeply colored by Barry Andrews’ cheapo keyboards. Andrews left the band after second album Go2 (1978); his replacement, Dave Gregory, was more of a lead guitarist although he also could play keyboards as well. As a result, six-strings more heavily dominated the band’s sound on Drums and Wires (1979); with Black Sea (1980), Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding (the McCartney to his Lennon) began to loosen up a little, letting such previously downplayed influences as The Kinks, The Beach Boys and yes, The Beatles overtly surface in their songs. “Towers of London”, for instance, is as catchy, solid and affecting as nearly anything by those ‘60s stalwarts, getting a lot out of a clanging hook, a heavy (but not derivative) period flavor, a heart-stopping, key-changing bridge, and, to keep it distinctively XTC, Partridge’s love-it-or-hate-it wail (it should go without saying that I love it.)
Although it was the band’s highest charting album in the UK, English Settlement is less the definitive XTC release and more a transitional one. The first two tracks, both written and sung by Moulding, are departures in sound and subject matter that each reoccur during the album’s remainder and indeed, throughout the rest of the band’s career. “Runaways” slowly fades into focus like a Monet landscape, a mass of shimmering guitars and impressionistic synths, eventually propelled by booming, insistent drums. Partridge aptly described it as “like walking through a forest, getting bigger and bigger until suddenly you’re in it and fighting your way through.” It emanates a sense of awe and wonder unlike anything else the band previously recorded, setting the stage for a more pastoral and mature XTC. Subsequent tracks like “Yacht Dance” and “All of a Sudden (It’s Too Late)” are similarly drenched in acoustic guitars and Gregory’s newly purchased electric 12-string Rickenbacker (the guitar The Byrd’s Roger McGuinn often used). Other songs, such as “Jason And The Argonauts” and “Snowman” favor walls of sound formed by circular, droning arpeggios instead of the alternately angular and melodic riffs the band was previously known for.
As “Runaways” fades out, “Ball and Chain” takes over with its instantly identifiable clipped guitar chords and bouncing martial beat, a sound that, like much of Black Sea, would provide the template for 1990s Britpop. Moulding’s lyrics, however, now hit much closer to home. A screed against devastation and demolition in the band’s industrial hometown of Swindon, “Ball and Chain” is far from XTC’s first political song (see “Generals and Majors” or “Complicated Game”), but it places new emphasis on protecting and holding on to past values much like The Kinks once did on Village Green Preservation Society, but with far less nostalgia. For Moulding and Partridge, holding on to their heritage is as much of a concern as ensuring there will still be a future to do so in. Such themes resurface throughout English Settlement: the purposely abrasive “Melt The Guns” is as insistently blunt as the title suggests, while “Knuckle Down” advocates for nonviolence on an individual level in hope for a collective world peace. If XTC once cloaked any commentary with a healthy dose of satire (“Respectable Street”, “Making Plans For Nigel”), they’re now more sincere in their approach.
What elevates English Settlement and arguably keeps it from falling off a cliff is that Partridge and Moulding aren’t willing to um, settle for being merely pastoral and/or political. This album covers considerable ground or at least as much as one could hope for in a 72-minute opus. With its triumphant count-to-five chorus, “Senses Working Overtime” is at once among the most accessible songs Partridge ever wrote (indeed, XTC’s only top ten UK hit), but also one of his more idiosyncratic tunes as well: the unconventional, barely-there opening measures give no hint that it will build to such majestic heights, and each twist and turn it takes carries a thrill that is effective as but far more complex than the average pop song hook. “No Thugs In Our House” also manages to feel both familiar (the stomping Motown beat, the indelible bridge to the chorus that’s as catchy as a chewing gum commercial) and wildly distinctive (the massive roar Partridge lets out right after the intro, the hyper-specific lyrics about a teen engaging in criminal activity, “dreaming of a world where he can do just what he wanted to” (lucky for him his father’s a judge)). “It’s Nearly Africa” filters world beat motifs through a Partridge-shaped lens, nailing down the expected polyrhythms and vocal cadences while stirring the pot with an out-of-nowhere, multi-tracked and cut-up saxophone solo (nearly making up for the (deliberately?) terrible one in previous track “Leisure”.) “Fly On The Wall” has all the ingredients for a radio hit, then obscures and smothers them in Moulding’s distorted vocals and a buzzing synth that skitters and suitably flies all over the song.
If this diversity gives English Settlement an intriguing shape, the band’s tightness and level of proficiency here make for XTC’s best-sounding album to date. “Down In The Cockpit” is both structurally giddy and light-as-air, combining a ska beat with a lounge-like melodic aura, each one perpetually keeping the other in check. “English Roundabout” retains that beat but quickens the tempo (with a tricky time signature, no less), its five or six hooks circling each other, threatening to collapse into bedlam but thankfully never doing so. “Jason and the Argonauts” is a prog-rock epic you’ll have no trouble staying awake for, as it always seems to keep moving forward and does not suffer from any lack of detail. And closing song “Snowman” cleverly makes a neglected lover metaphor out of the title figure’s wintry disposition and tendency to melt away; it also serves as a bookend to “Runaways” by reimagining that song’s dense, twinkly impressionist glow as a force to be reckoned with and walloped at, as personified by Partridge’s repeated exclamations of “AH!” (not too radically different from that of David Byrne’s.)
Following English Settlement, Partridge retreated, refusing to tour anymore, turning XTC into solely a studio band. Commercially this did little for them in the UK but eventually, they cultivated a new audience in the US and built up an unlikely but rewarding catalog. They will return throughout this tale, both via more of their albums and as influences on other artists.
Up next: an ending, or perhaps a beginning?
“No Thugs In Our House”: