Long Player: 'Skylarking' with XTC time well spent

In the age of the single download, Jeff Harford rediscovers the album . . .

Great pop music is all smoke and mirrors.

We don't need to know how the trick of emotional teleportation works, but we do appreciate the magic.

Listening to XTC's 1986 album Skylarking you'd be forgiven for thinking it emerged fully formed from the band's collective consciousness.

It falls from the cloudless sky of an English summer and pans from character to character like a camera on a seamless tracking shot, recording reflections on matters both trite and weighty as it passes through the landscape.

In fact, the process of recording the Swindon band's eighth studio album bore little resemblance to the scenes of pastoral idyll touched on in richly textured, multilayered songs such as Summer's Cauldron, Grass and Season Cycle.

Under pressure to revive flagging record sales, and solely dependent on those sales for the band's survival following singer-songwriter Andy Partridge's anxiety-driven exit from live performance in 1982, XTC travelled to New York to work with producer Todd Rundgren.

The experience proved immensely difficult for Partridge in particular, with Rundgren quickly deciding on a life-in-a-day concept for the album and reworking demos with brutal efficiency.

The tension spilled over into Partridge's relationship with his long-time musical partner, bassist and singer-songwriter Colin Moulding, the pair clashing over Rundgren's methodology.

But Rundgren got most of it right.

He understood well the players' capabilities and knew their history as new-wave guitar brats turned art-rock eccentrics.

Ultimately, his vision of creating a distinctly British-sounding pop record that defied most accepted wisdom about the genre was realised.

The album swirls around in a Strawberry Fields-esque psychedelic stew, too slippery to be easily grasped and therefore a difficult prospect for radio.

Only Dear God, which was added to the US reissue of the album after proving a popular B-side to Grass, proved a hit with the college crowd.

But under the sublime spell of XTC's mercurial melodies, 45 minutes spent Skylarking is time well spent.


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