“Skylarking” by XTC (No. 1)

"Skylarking" by XTC album coverI’m not saying that Skylarking is the best album in the history of the universe, but I’m not not saying it either. Certainly it’s the finest album XTC have produced.

I know precisely when my love affair with XTC began, it was May 3rd, 1987 when MTV played the world premiere of “Dear God” on 120 Minutes. While not on the original pressings of Skylarking, Geffen slapped it on the US version and omitted “Mermaid Smiled” to make room.

Once I finally got my hands on a copy of the cassette, I played it as much as possible – it’s a miracle that the cassette lasted until I made the switch to CDs and was able to retire the poor thing.

Skylarking is not as much a concept album as Tommy, or The Wall, but it is a very cohesive work. More like Sgt. Pepper really.

The Beatles were surely on XTC and producer Todd Rundgren’s minds while this album was made. After XTC’s first turn as The Dukes of Stratosphere, they went into the studio for Skylarking. While not quite so obviously 60s as their Dukes work, Skylarking has plenty of Beatles influence.

The sound of crickets herald the beginning of the album. “Summer’s Cauldron” is at times bombastic, at times wistful. Andy Partridge is at his most poetic on Skylarking.

When Miss Moon lays down
And Sir Sun stands up
Me I’m found floating round and round
Like a bug in brandy
In this big bronze cup
Drowning here in summer’s cauldron
Trees are dancing drunk with nectar
Grass is waving underwater
Please don’t pull me out, this is how I would want to go
Insect bomber Buddhist droning
Copper chord of August’s organ
Please don’t heed my shout
I’ll relax in the undertow

How could you not love such an over-the-top love sonnet to summer itself? Without any time to catch our breath, we’re on to “Grass.” The first side of the album isn’t quite a medley or a singular work, but the songs follow a sort of logical progression and tend to blend into one another.

In “Grass” the band sings the joys of “skylarking” on the grass, but also about the joys of … well, grass. Followed up by “The Meeting Place,” which follows with the trysting notion. This pair are by Colin Moulding, who gets five tracks of 14 on Skylarking. Five of 15, if you take into account “Dear God.”

Partridge must have been on something of a comics binge in the mid-80s. Psonic Psunspot features “Brainiac’s Daughter” and Skylarking features “That’s Really Super, Supergirl.”

“Supergirl” is a wonderful pop tune that explores the strain that superpowers must put on a relationship. It’s got the best quirky melody, and some very 80s synths. Is it too geeky to point out the Fortress of Solitude was Superman’s?

“Ballet for a Rainy Day” is a celebration of a spring rainstorm, watching crowds from the comfort of inside while people scurry around. On the surface it’s people watching, but also we’re singing about renewal and rebirth:

Apples and cherries
Are varnished in water
Despite, striped awnings bright dismay
I push my paintbrush
To conjure a new world
While this one is slowly washed away

For there to be a rebirth, though, there has to be a death. From the happiness of spring and blossoming romance, we’re cast into despair and misery. There’s no break between “Ballet” and “1,000 Umbrellas,” which positively wallows in a failed relationship. I’ve said before that I dearly love cello music, and the string section and cello in particular is just gorgeous on “Umbrellas.” Hats off to Dave Gregory for that arrangement, it’s so perfect.

XTC revisits the 60s

We don’t stay down for long, though. Having been through the ups and downs, we jump into “Season Cycle,” which nicely caps off the first side of Skylarking. There’s some strong influence from Pet Sounds here, particularly “God Only Knows.” Not quite as obvious as later XTC work like “Chalkhills and Children,” but it’s there. (The transition at 1:45, for example.)

The 60s influences are all over Skylarking, God bless ’em. Remember this is the band that started with odd and angular, new-wavy pop that fought so hard to be something new and different. Here’s Partridge and company embracing their influences, but also there’s a touch of the student becoming the master. The work here is every bit as mature as Sgt. Pepper, and every bit as good.

Speaking of influences, “Earn Enough for Us” could have been slipped into a Beatles album with no problem at all. The bass line here is as melodic as anything Paul McCartney ever devised. The topic here, though, is entirely 80s. Partridge is worrying whether he can support a family on a musician’s salary. (Not a new topic for XTC, see “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages” as well for another excellent take on this.)

Moulding piles on the cynicism with his take on weddings and the institution of marriage. “Big Day” warns about fingers being burnt with the touch of gold, and reminds that “life goes on after the show.”

Skylarking is XTC going Beatlesque, but so much more

“Another Satellite” is a more sedate, thinky number. This is a rebuff from Partridge, “I’m taken, stop bothering me” but also, but implies that he’s not quite willing to cut off contact entirely. This one’s thick and atmospheric, we’re out of Fab Four territory here.

The original line-up has “Mermaid Smiled” next, which is a bright and uplifting number to follow the less happy “Satellite.” Almost frantic, “Mermaid” is a great tune.

At this point you might not expect a hipster jazz number replete with finger snaps and flute, but it is indeed what you get. “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” feels like it was recorded for a mid-60s spy movie, Prarie Prince turns in some fantastic drumming on this one. Lyrically it’s pretty heavy, but ultimately redemptive.

Skylarking moves through the seasons

Moulding’s “Dying” is a reflection on mortality, darkly beautiful and particularly poignant. Followed by “Sacrificial Bonfire,” which starts off ominously and builds to a frenzy of activity.

“Dear God” was initially a b-side to “Grass,” but it’s the one that got the radio play. At least, it did until DJs actually caught on to the lyrics. Behind this catchy, jangly number is Partridge’s declaration of disbelief. Once again, the strings really make this one. That, and Partridge’s sneering, angry delivery.

As a budding atheist, this song grabbed my attention fast. Didn’t hurt that it’s also just a great song, but it was refreshing to hear someone else voicing my thoughts.

Andy Partridge has called Skylarking “a summer’s day cooked into one cake,” and that sums up the experience for me nicely. Once I got my hands on this, I played over and over and over again. Any time I play it now, I get a little free trip back to 1987.

This may not rank quite as high for most folks, but it’s hard to deny it’s a brilliant album.

Tomorrow, or later this week, I’ll do a wrap-up for the top 100 and what I might tackle next. In the meantime, see if you can lay hands on Skylarking and give it a listen or twenty.

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