XTC - Skylarking album review

“A summer’s day cooked into one cake,” as XTC man Andy Partridge puts it.

XTC - Skylarking album cover

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It’s common knowledge that XTC and Todd Rundgren didn’t get along. Drafted in to produce 1986’s Skylarking at the insistence of the record label, who desperately wanted to break XTC in America, Rundgren presided over sessions that swiftly became acrimonious. The fallout is still apparent today. Early this year, the American maverick claimed that Andy Partridge never trusted him. Partridge, for his part, recently told Prog that while Rundgren was a brilliant arranger, his bedside manner was “very difficult to handle”. If any of this discord made it onto the finished result, it’s impossible to tell. Skylarking, XTC’s ninth album, is a prog pop masterpiece that glows ever brighter with the passing of time.

An accelerated song cycle about life itself – from birth to death, while covering most points in-between – it contains some of Partridge’s most inspired compositions, alongside a fair few from fellow songwriter Colin Moulding. 1,000 Umbrellas, for instance, is a baroque stunner worthy of Roy Wood or The Zombies, given wings by Dave Gregory’s sublime string arrangement. Moulding’s Big Day addresses the uncertainties of the future from the vantage point of two newlyweds (‘Are you deafened by the bells?/Could be heaven, could be hell’) over a gauzy backdrop that taps directly into Revolver-era Beatles.

Agnostic hymn Dear God, meanwhile, finds Partridge pressing his thoughts on centuries of religious dogma into three and a half glorious minutes. This is a song, incidentally, that nervy Virgin bosses deemed too inflammatory to include on the original LP. Steven Wilson has remixed the album in stereo sound for this reissue, which includes four bonus tracks from the same era. The pick of these is Little Lighthouse, a brassy burst of West Coast psychedelia that Partridge later salvaged for The Dukes Of Stratosphear. The Blu-ray edition of the album features a 5.1 surround sound mix, additional instrumentals, an alternative demo album and the promo videos for Dear God and Grass.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.