How you stopped the universe from dying: XTC


“When they get too Rundgren/Beatles-esque I tune out. When the drums and guitars clatter I get restless. This means our relationship will remain fraught for decades.” I wrote this several years ago about XTC, whom ILM polled. Their chart fortunes fascinate me. “King For a Day” and “Making Plans For Nigel” got lots of airplay on Y-100’s “post-modern music show” on Sunday nights, and my friend Greg bought me the redoubtable MTV “120 Minutes” comp with XTC’s “Dear God,” a song that struck me then as jejune and now as the work of grumpy English conservative pastoralists; their untroubled relationship with melody often leavens the crank and doesn’t hinder their flirtation with the rhythmic experiments of post-punk. Nonesuch I bought in summer ’92, lord knows why, to be honest, for “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” has awful drums and an approach to singing that made me give Kevin Costner and his accent in JFK a second look. The album is stuffed with trifles undeserving of the contortions and embellishments. Charmed by a rare airing of “Grass” on the college radio station, I bought the feted Skylarking from Columbia House in 1995. A song sequence — fine. Lovely.

But I didn’t return to the catalog, committed to my first response. That’s where matters remained for years until I bought the Upsy Daisy Assortment comp, Drums and Wires and Black Sea. They impressed me: Andy Patridge and Colin Moulding writing Cubist takes on Cuba, girlfriends, and their ambivalent relations with their own songcraft. Fueled by a purchase of the taken for granted Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), I took a successful second plunge. Uneven for sure, pop in someone’s definition not mine, attenuated by the departure of arranger/multi-instrumentalist David Gregory, but home of “The Wheel and the Maypole,” one of the sharpest songs written about how everything sucks and all we can do is hum a catchy ditty as the end approaches.

Yet I’ve kept trying, and this year Mummer was a breakthrough. Thanks to sampling technology, tracks like “Wonderland” sound like first drafts of the pastoral evocations of Skylarking — compare Moulding’s “Wonderland” with “Grass” three years later. Partridge is on fire: “Great Fire” marries a conceit to one of his best hiccup-hooks, “Ladybird” one of his most fully realized Abbey Road homages. Even the extra tracks included on the 2001 reissue charm, notably “Toys” and “Jump.”

Based on the length of my top thirty, I’ve no compunction about praising XTC as one of the eighties best bands. Forget the songwriting for a moment; focus on “band.” Utility man Dave Gregory contributed inventive parts, whether the strung piano wire effect coursing through “Beating of Hearts” or the fingerpicking on “Senses Working Overtime.” Partridge’s vocal melodies never end at the expected places. Resisting their influences by employing contemporary distancing devices — XTC were ideal post-modernists.

1. No Language in Our Lungs
2. Towers of London
3. Statue of Liberty
4. This World Over
5. When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty
6. Snowman
7. Senses Working Overtime
8. Grass
9. King For a Day
10. You’re The Wish You Are I Had
11. Runaway
12. Scarecrow People
13. Great Fire
14. Love on a Farmboy’s Wages
15. Life Begins at the Hop
16. Dear Madam Barnum
17. The Wasp and the Maypole
18. Jason and the Argonauts
19. Respectable Street
20. Helicopter
21. Complicated Game
22. Playground
23. Books are Burning
24. Ladybird
25. Making Plans for Nigel
26. Toys
27. The Disappointed
28. River of Orchids
29. The Mayor of Simpleton
30. Mermaid Smiled

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