Friday, June 17, 2016

Skylarking - XTC

When rock music evolved in the 1950s from pop, country, folk and blues, it wasn't simply a new style of music, it interacted with, enlivened and fashioned a counter-culture that challenged the fundamental status quo, particularly in America. Intellectualism in rock, therefore, was eschewed as straying from the roots of rock 'n' roll. Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes, for instance, were full of themselves, and inevitably gunned down by the likes of The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash, yet the raw effervescence of punk couldn't hide its cultural and intellectual impact. The ironic leadership that Joey and Rotten and Strummer represented was irrefutable, just as the anti-art Dada movement couldn't shake that pesky categorization into the art world.

So much for anti-intellectualism. From Kate Bush to David Sylvian to Andy Partridge, AM has an affinity for smart rock, math rock, art rock, baroque pop, shoegaze, nugaze and XTC (a category unto themselves - the most underrated band of the 80s).

With 1986's Skylarking, XTC unlocked a secret English garden where pop-songs grow in strange, brightly-colored blossoms. Out with the rust, steam and machinery of The Big Express and in with a fresh summer breeze, buzzing bees, swaying trees, sunshine, moonlight, morning dew. Skylarking is a pantheistic round dance through the course of life, the cycle from summer to winter or morning to nighttime, whatever you like. As is often the case with an exemplary project, tensions and frictions between two alpha egos, song smith Andy Partridge and musical director Todd Rundgren, were caustic and legendary, but that too plays an integral role in making Skylarking what it is: a lush, intellectual, over the top pop celebration, and one of the best LPs of the 80s.

Side One: Opening with one of Andy's most beautiful lyrics, "Summer’s Cauldron," Skylarking's rich palette unfolds before, or rather inside, the listener, every hook-line and shimmering chord a hearty, purposefully-placed brushstroke. Coupled with "Grass," the opening medley is the sonic equivalent of summer tranquility. Back to back, Partridge and Moulding demonstrate their talent for sensitive pop in two languid miniatures. And while the sun still shines we are whisked to the secret "Meeting Place" of young lovers. This is one of the most pastorally vivid suites on record. The sublimely ridiculous "That's Really Super, Supergirl" is next, leading into the beautiful "Ballet for a Rainy Day." 
Even if we need "1000 Umbrellas" as raindrops and tears of rejected love furrow down our cheeks, side one's suite ends with some of the most intellectually stimulating lyrics on record (One thousand umbrellas/ Upturned couldn't catch all the rain/ That came out of my head/ When you said we were/ Over and over I cried/ Till I floated downstream/ To a town they call Misery...), not to mention the best chamber-pop arrangement since "Eleanor Rigby." The season ends, but not with hopelessness; instead we're reminded by the "Season Cycle," that we are able to transcend the darkness and the mire of romantic misery.

Side Two: As the garden turns to its autumnal brilliance, like something out of Byron, the course of life has reached  middle-age, the colors of the canvas muted to a more earthy quality, in which down to earth problems are introduced: Marriage might not last forever ("Big Day"), families have to be nourished and bills to be paid. Along these lines, Partridge delivers the topic in a surprisingly catchy, upbeat should-have-been-single called "Earn Enough For Us." The painting, this sonic poem, now filled with blue-tones darkening, the pastoral dim of dusk, we are left to reflect on the pastel patterns in days of once was ("Mermaid Smiled"). In reality, lying right at our side like Wuthering Heights, we are steered by that "Man who sailed around his soul" with a smooth, jazzy accompaniment.

Is the end unchangeably black and grey in a frosty winter? The ironic, unpretentious look at "Dying" by Colin Moulding, with its sparse, clock-work percussion and lamenting clarinet, might be telling us so, but XTC aren't dreary fatalists. A strange, yet intriguing mix of color completes the picture: a medieval pagan celebration, the cleansing power of a bonfire, the idea of rebirth instead completes the circus and takes it back to its beginning. Skylarking is an AM9 (to be continued...). "Dear God" was wisely left off the original album. XTC's biggest hit was better suited as a bonus track in that it wasn't in step with the sentiment and mood of the other tracks. The colors, patterns and brush strokes on Skylarking are synesthesia for something else: Bona fide pastoral pop.