Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[Welcome to Thirty Year Thursday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1986, which now shifts to the releases I didn’t discover until after 1986]
The prospect of exploring the XTC discography can be a daunting task for the uninitiated, since their sound changed multiple times throughout their career…sometimes within the same record…and not every album is an ideal gateway into their catalog. For me, 1989’s Oranges & Lemons was the perfect primer, and I soon worked my way through their earlier releases. While most of their albums likely have proponents among their fan base, 1986’s Todd Rundgren-produced Skylarking is probably the ideal XTC starting point. Although they never made another album quite like it, all the elements that make them so unique…melodic songs, quirky arrangements, the differing-yet-complementary songwriting styles of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory’s inventive guitar work…are on full display throughout this song cycle. I revisited each of their albums in 2013 for a 6-part series and my love of their music was reignited, 25 years after first dipping my toes in the XTC waters. Here’s what I wrote about Skylarking in Part 3 of that series.
They shifted gears in more ways than one for Skylarking (1986) by working in New York with legendary recording artist & studio wizard Todd Rundgren as producer. The band (especially Andy) has never hidden their dislike for Rundgren’s approach in the studio, but fortunately those bad vibes didn’t carry over to one of the (if not THE) most satisfyingly consistent collection of songs they’ve ever recorded. With certain tracks connected by sound effects and a running order chosen by Rundgren before recording even began, there’s a sense that this is a concept album, but if that’s the case it’s more a sonic connection rather than a continuous lyrical theme. Just about every song is a winner and worthy of inclusion on a career spanning anthology. The various summery sound effects on “Summer’s Cauldron” immediately create a unique atmosphere, and I like the shift to a more peppy tempo at “when Miss Moon lays down…” This segues into Colin’s “Grass,” which is highlighted by a slow conga groove and a great violin melody. It’s a pleasant head-nodding tune with distinctly British vocals (“Shocked me too, the things we used to do on grass”).
“The Meeting Place” is a simple, sentimental & nostalgic look back at a girl waiting at the factory gate for her man, and the bouncy melody & lovely harmonies make this one of Colin’s most instantly accessible songs. I love the electric piano in the pre-chorus (“You’re a working girl now”). “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” is a sarcastic song by Andy about a conceited woman, having nothing to do with the titular superheroine. It straddles the border of lounge music & gentle pop, and Dave’s short guitar solo is a gem. “Ballet For A Rainy Day” could be a Queen ballad in the verses with its lovely, slightly melancholy melody. According to Song Stories author Neville Farmer, it’s “a rather cheerful look at a miserable day.” “1,000 Umbrellas” might be the one misstep on this record, but it packs a punch at “Now I’m crawling the wallpaper that’s looking more like a roadmap to misery, oh oh misery.” The original Side A closed out with “Season Cycle,” which was inspired by Andy walking his dog. Andy regards this as one of his favorites, even ranking it up there with one of his heroes, The Kinks’ Ray Davies. It’s sparse & lovely with vocals & accompaniment that recall the under-produced (and underrated) Beach Boys recordings of the late-60s. “Earn Enough For Us” is super catchy & upbeat, a perfect song to start off Side B (I wish I owned this on vinyl to experience that the way it was intended). Although it wasn’t released as a single, it could (and should) have gotten more exposure. The melody at “Glad that you want to be my wife, but honest” is particularly noteworthy.
“Big Day” is Colin’s pep talk for his son, who was still very young, “aimed at the time when he would be marriageable.” It’s a bit grandiose but the psychedelic folk tinges and REM-esque jangly guitars set this apart from the rest of the album. I wonder how Colin really feels about marriage: “Are you deafened by the bells? Could be heaven could be hell in a cell for two.” Ouch! Andy’s “Another Satellite” is a slightly angry song about an obsessed female fan who, ironically, he would eventually settle down with after his divorce. The haunting phased guitar figure & vaguely psychedelic touches give it a unique atmosphere. Andy described “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” as “a John Barry thing…cod spy music.” Featuring one of his strongest vocal performances, this finger-snapping tune has a great lounge jazz arrangement and a killer shift at “And the sirens that sing…” The country-tinged “Dear God” was a controversial hit single that was originally left off the album, but its success forced the record label to re-press it, replacing “Mermaid Smiled” (that one’s included on a compilation that I’ll discuss in my next post). The idea of a child’s letter to God questioning the existence of God is a very clever concept, and it’s insanely catchy, but I can understand why some religious folks might have been displeased by lines like, “Did you make mankind after we made you?” It segues into Colin’s “Dying,” which is a somber but not maudlin tune inspired by his friendship with an elderly neighbor. His voice is gruffer, reminding me of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and he delivers some effective lines, i.e. “Don’t want to die like you” and “What sticks in my mind…” The haunting melody played on a Chamberlain organ is another excellent production choice. Colin described his album closer, “Sacrificial Bonfire,” as “an evil piece of music, and good would triumph over it.” I love the subtle rhythm, with shakers & syncopated beat, although I’m not a fan of the bombastic chorus. The rest of the song is beautiful, and it allows the album to slip away on a peaceful note. I can’t say enough good things about Skylarking, which has to be high on the list of must-haves for anyone checking out the XTC catalog for the first time.
I think this album is universally adored by XTC fans even if it’s not everyone’s favorite. Please let me know how you rank it compared to the rest of their discography.