The first piece in my "Blast from the Past" series was a review of Scritti Politti's album Cupid & Psyche '85. Today's review is of an album released three years earlier by another British group. But this album, a jangling, complex masterpiece, is about as far away from the synthpop that Green Gartside and Co. so expertly produced. This album is XTC's English Settlement.
XTC fans are a passionate — indeed, some might say "rabid" — bunch. Whether we've been listening since 1977's White Music or since the middle of last week, we tend to act protectively toward Andy, Colin, Dave, Terry, and Barry. A few weeks ago, I wrote a overwhelmingly negative review of Andy Partridge's most recent project, an avant-garde improvisational album called Monstrance. Even though the album has nothing at all to do with XTC, I was, to put it mildly, burned at the stake by my fellow XTC fans. I was attacked for being a musical moron; for not having any taste; for not having an open mind. I rebutted those attacks by saying, in effect, that my love for great music is evidenced by my love for XTC.
This is a love that has stretched for more than 10 years, ever since the first time (early evening) on the first day (July 19, 1994) that I listened to my first XTC song ("The Smartest Monkeys") off my first XTC album (Nonsuch). It has stretched through purchases of every XTC album on CD (sometimes more than once); of various bootlegs on CD, vinyl, and cassette; of t-shirts and fleeces and hats; and of promotional posters, one of which hangs, framed, in my living room. It has stretched through the band's punk albums, like 1979's Drums & Wires all the way to the orchestral pop of Skylarking and the alt-rock of Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2). It has stretched through the departure of keyboardist and guitarist Dave Gregory and the current "freeze" of the band. It has stretched through Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding's seven-year strike against Virgin Records. It has stretched through high school, college, and two jobs. For more than 10 years, XTC has been my favorite band.
But, with the exception of Andy Partridge's ten-volume set of demo recordings, XTC hasn't released any new material since 2000. So, after putting Monstrance to the side, I figured that it would be time to remember why I loved XTC so much in the first place.
There are many good XTC albums and a few great ones; English Settlement fits very comfortably into the latter category. Produced and engineered by the legendary Hugh Padgham, the album marked a significant change of course for the band. Two years earlier, in 1980, they had released Black Sea, an album that merged their punk and new-wave styles. Now, for English Settlement, they scaled back the loud guitars and hiccuping vocals and replaced them with soft acoustics, electric 12-strings, and drums that seemed ready to take over the world. (Drummer Terry Chambers left the band after English Settlement, and this was a perfect note — no pun intented — for him to leave on.) From the psychedelic jangle that begins "Runaways" to the wintertime jingle that ends "Snowman," each song on this album is, simply, a masterpiece. Bass player Colin Moulding's contributions are the finest of his career; indeed, "Ball and Chain," the second cut on the first side, was one of English Settlement's early singles.
Despite Padgham's stellar production and the band's exceptional playing (see pretty much all of "Jason and the Argonauts" for an example of both), this album clearly belongs to lead singer and songwriter Andy Partridge. Although his songs on the band's previous efforts range from the stunning ("Complicated Game" and "Respectable Street") to the silly ("Sgt. Rock is Going to Help Me" and "When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty"), English Settlement marks a significant breakthrough for both his music and his lyrics.
The biting social satire "No Thugs in Our House" fades into the airy, complicated "Yacht Dance." XTC fans will argue until the end of time about our favorite song on English Settlement, but my picks are both "Jason and the Argonauts" (seriously, go listen) and "All of a Sudden (It's Too Late)." (Yeah, I know it's a tie, but c'mon!) Both songs are perfect pieces of intelligent pop, each with a message and a melody unmatched by the output of most other songwriters of the era. As Dave and Andy weave lead guitar lines in and out, Colin keeps pace with the bass and Terry uses both acoustic and electric drums to create a foundation that is intriguing, unsettling, and absolutely perfect.
Each song on English Settlement — from the amusing "Leisure" to the trippy and zippy "Fly on the Wall" — acts as a chapter in a musical novel about love, loss, hope, and heartache. Whether the song is about razing buildings ("Ball & Chain"), celebrating womanhood ("Down in the Cockpit"), or destroying modern civilization ("It's Nearly Africa"), XTC presents each topic without condescension, sarcasm, or haughtiness.
Sadly, English Settlement did not provide XTC the commercial success they had been looking for. Soon after the album was released, Partridge suffered a nervous breakdown while performing in France; soon after that, the band stopped touring altogether. While there were some minor hits along the way — "Dear God," "The Mayor of Simpleton," and "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" being the biggest — the world, by and large, never quite caught on. This is a damn shame.
Oftentimes, know-it-all music reviewers like myself talk about the musical moment that changed my life, man. For some, it's the first time they heard The Rolling Stones on the radio or watched The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. For others, it was hearing the sounds of Joni Mitchell or Marvin Gaye during that summer when __________ happened. For me, though, this moment didn't happen under such earth-shattering circumstances. It was simple, really: it was the moment, sitting in my dorm room in high school, when I put English Settlement into my roommate Jon's CD player and pressed the "Play" button. It may not have involved fireworks or a glimpse of God, but I will never forget sitting in the chair at my desk and closing my eyes; skipping history class and hitting "Repeat" so I could listen again.