XTC Skylarking (Ape House)
This latest reissue of XTC’s 1986 album, now on Andy Partridge’s own label, “corrects” a few non-compliances that plagued previous versions. It restores the originally intended cover art, forbidden by Virgin, the band’s label of the time, integrates popular b-side “Dear God” into the running order rather than plonking it on the end of the album and reinstates the track that was dropped to include it in some territories, “Mermaid Smiled”. Also, a polarity issue that allegedly degraded the sound of the original version has been corrected. Brilliantly, due to licensing issues with Virgin, this director’s cut of “Skylarking” is currently only available on vinyl, and commendably well-pressed 45 rpm discs of the stuff at that. Resulto!
Having first heard and been unimpressed with “Skylarking” on CD around 15 years ago, listening to this reissue has been a delightful journey of (re)discovery. A loosely conceptual cradle-to-grave song suite, in capturing aspects of Englishness it stands between, and perhaps is every bit as good as, “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society” and Blur’s “Parklife”, its leafy, provincial settings even geographically equidistant between the two.
As its title suggests, “Summer’s Cauldron” is practically heaving with nectar, sounding a little like contemporary Talk Talk gambolling in a sun-dappled meadow. On “Grass”, as on several other songs, it’s a delight to hear vocals with a broad West Country accent outside the confines of a Wurzels album. Even when the album falls prey to contemporary production mores, such as the synth and sequencer overload of “That’s Really Super, Supergirl”, the quality of the songwriting shines through (and getting “Superman: The Movie” for Christmas certainly helped unravel some of the latter’s lyrical references). The second side’s sequence of “Ballet For A Rainy Day”, “1000 Umbrellas” and “Season Cycle” seems like it might pay covert (or more likely unintended) homage to the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Concerto For A Rainy Day” and Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg”, its opening line predicting the title of the band’s next album, “Oranges & Lemons”. The harsh economic realities of “Earn Enough For Us” are of perennial relevance, sadly, and to me “Another Satellite” and “Mermaid Smiled” both seem to tackle perhaps thwarted parenthood. “Dear God” is a catchy, clear-eyed critique of religion, “Dying” an unsentimental reflection on the death of an elderly relative and “Sacrificial Bonfire” surely an oblique reference to cremation.
All in all, though, “Skylarking” is simply a great English pop album, subtle, inventive and surprising, with the added advantage that its relative obscurity (straight in at number 90 on the UK charts and straight out again the next week) means that it’s unlikely to have been overplayed to death outside of the hippest households. One of the great musical discoveries of 2010 for me, alongside the Drive-By Truckers back catalogue, I hope this is the first of many commendable XTC vinyl reissues.