Skylarking (XTC) – Album Review (Part 2)

As you have just read, “Skylarking” was recorded under a guillotine-sharp atmosphere. Todd Rundgren was determined to produce, and Andy was determined to have his way as usual. You look up “falling out” in Wikipedia and you will probably come across this drawing of Todd that Andy made during the sessions:

Todd Rundgren

In hindsight, the right thing to say is that Todd saved XTC’s career. Andy readily admits it now. He infused the songs on offer (songs that were already very strong to begin with) with a sheen that was commercial without sacrificing any of the band’s trademark wit and whimsicality. This is evident the moment “Summer’s Cauldron” begins playing. A song that describes the inertia which characterizes these summer days when the whole world seems to be put on hold and life resembles an eternal vacation, it was a daring way to start the album made instantly approachable by the production.

As I explained on the first part of this review, the early songs have a more carefree air. The song that exemplifies this best is most likely track number two, “Grass”. It is a celebration of teenage pleasures – sex and/or drugs, the title and the actual lyrics are ambiguous enough to accommodate both interpretations. Come the third song, though, and the weight of the adult world can start being felt. The third track is “The Meeting Place”, and it is heralded by a ticking clock that is heard again as the record is finishing (“Dying”). The settlement into an adult life is further studied in the song “Earn Enough For Us”, where the protagonist feels the pressures and demands of leading an ordered life more than anything.

But the song that better deals with the passing of time must be “Season Cycle”, a song that many seem to link to the Beach Boys owing to its vocal harmonies. I think that viewpoint would be valid if we didn’t have the Dukes’ song “Pale And Precious”. As it stands, a link can be made. But it is a bit of a forced one. In the song, Andy personifies nature and celebrates life in the most joyous way I have ever seen. Nobody beats him at the game of infusing emotions into anything he touches. And a song that shares a similar approach is “Ballet For A Rainy Day”, where the young protagonist still retains enough of an innocent vision as to see the romantic qualities in just everything.

Todd Rundgren’s input is notably felt in “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” (arranged as something like the theme tune to a spy show) (!!!) and “1,000 Umbrellas” a song performed almost solely by a string quartet.

The closing number is an orchestrated one. Penned by Colin (who also wrote “Grass” and the ode to marriage “Big Day”), “Sacrificial Bonfire” brings a sense of closure to the whole album. Like a curtain that falls in a way that does not conceal what was left behind, but which rather emphasizes its actual presence. It is a very fulfilling moment, and it keeps up to the high standard of the record.

I have intentionally left the song “Dear God” for last. That was the song that became a hit all over College radio. But Andy didn’t like it at all back then, and he still doesn’t. He cites the profoundness of the subject, and the inadequacy of dealing with such matters satisfactorily in a three-minute span. He even went as far as to take the song off the original record, and having it replaced it with the (also excellent)”Another Satellite”. “Dear God” was relegated to the b-side of the “Grass” single, and College radio starting playing as if there were no tomorrow. When that happened, the song was reinserted and the album pressed accordingly.

“Dear God” is one of XTC’s undisputable major artistic statements. While it is true that the subject (an open letter to God) lends itself to monumentally longer exploration, the considerations Andy did set down are representative enough. Well, maybe the “I don’t mean a big reduction in the price of beer” bit was not that stellar, but we all know that sometimes you have to give the people what they want. And Andy had learned it the time “Sgt. Rock” hit the Top 15 some years back. Instrumentally, the song is a masterpiece: violins sweep all over it in a sort of prolonged swoon, whereas a child sings the intro and outro to noticeable effect. And the band is impeccable as usual. The song is also an excellent exponent of what is found within “Skylarking” on the whole: clever music that is superbly arranged and performed. XTC never sounded so true to themselves and so accessible at the same time.

Rating: 9/10

1 thought on “Skylarking (XTC) – Album Review (Part 2)

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