Not that long ago, XTC was a nearly perfect band. It corrupted its bountiful hooks with unsettling harmonies and rhythms and rocked hard enough to compensate for the solemnity of its often-shallow political protests. But after guitarist and singer Andy Partridge fell ill during the English Settlement tour, the band members retired to their country houses in the south of England and Partridge decided he was Paul McCartney. XTC's subsequent releases have been dominated by Partridge's flowery love songs and an obsessive exploration of modern-production possibilities.
On Skylarking, the band is joined by producer Todd Rundgren, a studio recluse with a Fab Four fixation of his own. Todd lures XTC out of the house the LP was recorded in San Francisco and Woodstock, New York but exacerbates the band's techno tendencies. The result is as thoroughly fascinating as it is ultimately unsatisfying.
As craftsmanship, Skylarking is a remarkable achievement, surely the most accomplished neo-psychedelic LP to date. Each one of the fourteen songs is defined by a series of structural details strong melodies on both verse and chorus, striking harmonies, a lyrical phrase or two and instrumental hooks. Sustaining this for nearly forty-five minutes, as XTC almost does (the end of side two falters), demonstrates how much the band has learned about composition in the past decade.
But if craft is your definition of genius, you may as well stick with ELP and GTR. Partridge reveals the limits of his pastoral vision through his reliance on repetition. "Earn Enough for Us" recycles the theme of "Love on a Farmboy's Wages," from Mummer, XTC's 1984 effort, and the tears of rain in "1000 Umbrellas" first appeared in that LP's "Great Fire." Partridge goes outside and sees a "silent film of melting miracle play," spends a hot day bathing in "mats of flower lava," magnifies a "verdant spiral" until it becomes a reflection on pantheism and that's just on the first side. Unfortunately Partridge unlike, say, Van Morrison isn't the sort of singer who can convincingly express the rapture he finds in the countryside.
This trading of the acute modernism that marked such classics as "This Is Pop" and "Making Plans for Nigel" for domestic solitude dampens the band's punk-roots energy and also limits its emotional spectrum. Consider "That's Really Super, Supergirl," a terrible title with an irresistible chorus. "You stopped the universe from dying/But you're never gonna stop me crying," Partridge complains. But then he apologizes to his ex for being "rude" to her. Being rude is the point of breakup songs, and a shot of rudeness is just what XTC could use now. (RS 496)
(Posted: Mar 26, 1987)
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