Read the introduction to this review here.
“English Settlement” was released in 1982, and as opposed to “Black Sea” (the album that preceded it, and an album that was devised as a vehicle for live performances) the double LP hinted at the more pastoral sound the band was to adopt in earnest shortly. Of course, the embracement of such a tone was precipitated by the events that took place while they were touring “English Settlement” – first, Andy breaking down onstage and declaring the band would play live no more, and then the loss of Terry Chambers (the most level-headed member of the band, and someone who basically was in a group because he enjoyed playing live).
As I explained at the end of yesterday’s introduction, it was on “English Settlement” that Andy realized there was nothing wrong with exploring the capabilities that studios offer in terms of instrumentation. He no longer wanted to record only songs that could be replicated live exactly as they had gone down into tape. The record was then freed from a conceptual straightjacket and the results were to be the first true sampler of XTC as most of us love them: zany, daft, zany, wildly unpredictable, and zany. And utterly brilliant.
Each song is a true universe in itself. I think that there are not that many albums in which every note that you are hearing is germane to the actual constituency of a song as in the vast majority of the cuts featured on this double LP. With the exception of “Down In The Cockpit” and “Melt The Guns”, the extended duration of most of the songs is warranted – “Jason And The Argonauts” has an hypnotic instrumental passage that is not really a solo but rather a sagacious way to sustain the tension of the middle eight until the song comes back on track for its conclusion, and “Leisure” has some dissident breaks that amplify the tedium of the lyrics fabulously. Besides “All Of A Sudden” had to run that long if only because that was the only way the music could truly represent the inability to grasp the reality which is expressed in the song.
Discrimination based on race (“No Thugs In Our House” and “Knuckle Down”) and on gender (“Down In The Cockpit “) is a recurrent theme on English Settlement, and Colin sings about modernization in “Ball And Chain”, a song that precedes “Boarded Up” by two decades. The difference is that in “Ball And Chain” something was still standing up and could be ostensibly saved; by the time he wrote “Boarded Up” there was not such a chance.
Romantic disillusion is the common denominator of songs like “All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late)” and “Snowman”, both excellent songs. You can almost feel the snow falling as the latter begins, and the chanted vocals are up there with the ones boasted by the percussion-heavy “It’s Nearly Africa”. Terry’s advancement as a musician is appreciated in that song as in no other. The question of how far would his inventiveness have gone was sadly never to be answered.
Personally, I am not that partial to Colin’s songs on the album, although “English Roundabout” is quite noticeable with its 5/4 time signature, and “Fly On The Wall” has a fuzzy synth that is as clever as any of Andy’s innumerable breaks and gimmicks throughout the whole album. I will never, ever understand why “Blame The Weather” was relegated to a mere b-side – it was one of the best songs Colin ever penned. Something similar was to happen many years down the line to “Didn’t Hurt A Bit”, a song recorded for “Nonsuch” but left off the album while stuff like “War Dance” was included.
And something that is quite peculiar: Andy plays the sax twice (in “Leisure” and “It’s Nearly Africa”). The way he plays the instrument is quite reminiscent of how he played the drums for Pete Blegvad. The instrument begins playing, you say “What the…?” and then you grin as you finish “Ah, it’s Andy”.
Of course, the album also included the intricate “Senses Working Overtime”, a song that speaks of sheer amazement and wonder at life’s potential, but which has a true undercurrent of sadness to it. The song insinuates that the inability to grasp and comprehend all that information leads to self-imposed alienation, both for your own sake and for the sake of others. Sadly, Andy was to become the living example of that. “English Settlement” was to be the final album that XTC would release while they were a touring unit; Andy decided to retire from performing as he broke down in a show at Paris, and the second phase of the band’s career would commence there and then.
As I explained when introducing the album yesterday, “English Settlement” is not something to dive into at breakneck speed. Give it time, give it room to grow. The vocals are distracting, and the length of some compositions is off-putting at first too. But everything clicks eventually, and when it does you will be able to enjoy what some of the most talented caretakers of music assembled at their prime. You will also feel the despondency of knowing that it was at that very same point that they could have cracked it. If you are a lover of XTC, you are used to living with that. But that doesn’t make it any less aggravating. Stories can’t be rewritten, but they can be shared until the end of time. That is the ultimate duty that every fan of the band auto-imposes upon himself. And in the end, it is the most rewarding task you could ever imagine.