XTC - Black Sea album review

XTC expansion series enters deep dark ocean

XTC - Black Sea album artwork

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It’s no secret – in fact it’s a point of pride for the band – that XTC never quite fitted in. Whatever the prevailing breezes, they resisted them or blew along in an awkward marriage of convenience. In 1980 they were roped in with New Wave, pushed as an English Talking Heads because they used ‘jagged’ rhythms somewhere between punk and pop and blurted wilfully smart lyrics.

Black Sea, their fourth album, kept up the hefty – often overbearing – drum sounds of Drums And Wires, consolidated the twin guitars and upped the sociopolitical snark. Yet while critics flocked to call their work “perfect pop”, it was, despite frequent catchy melodies and hooks, just too dark at heart to pass as such with the general public.

Producer Steve Lillywhite was having a wild breakthrough year – in 1980 alone his key collaborations included U2’s Boy, the third Peter Gabriel solo album and Psychedelic Furs’ debut. The shiny gated reverb drum sound was the new deal of the day. Sexy at the time, it hasn’t aged well, and on occasion drowns out the songwriters’ wit here. So as Steven Wilson remixes go, perhaps this expanded edition presented our man with different challenges. There’s not much he can do about the crashing rhythms – the elephant in the room – but as ever he skilfully takes a duster to the sounds and allows Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory’s interplay to deliver defter dynamics. Only the repetitive seven-minute closer Travels In Nihilon is still a slave to domineering big beats.

These are minor reservations about a largely upbeat album – originally titled Work Under Pressure, until the manager’s feelings were hurt – which powers through bona fide hits like Generals And Majors, Towers Of London and Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me). Living Through Another Cuba grates, but Colin Moulding’s Love At First Sight is bright and precise.

The additional versions, mixes and from-the-period songs stress how busily fizzing XTC were back then. Black Sea remains full of fresh water.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.