Black Sea is nothing short of pure pop perfection.
If Drums and Wire showed off a newly solidifying XTC sound, Black Sea is the band taking things to the next level in nearly every way. Bigger, fuller and even more fully-realized, the band’s fourth album in nearly as many years further cemented their status as a creative force to be reckoned with. Indeed, Black Sea is nothing short of pure pop perfection with nary a bum track in its nearly hour-long running time. Not only do they show themselves to be brilliant pop tunesmiths, they do so with an infuriating ease, churning out an album full of songs any one of which would make another band’s whole career.
It’s little surprise then that Black Sea finally managed to bring XTC to the attention of American audiences, albeit in a decidedly niche fashion. Where Drums and Wires had stalled out at number 174 on the Billboard 200 – despite reaching gold record status just north of the border in Canada – Black Sea was the band’s highest charting album, spending an impressive 24 weeks on the charts and topping out at number 41. An impressive feat for any band, it was especially so given XTC’s decidedly British, idiosyncratic approach to songwriting.
But listening to the album nearly 40 years later, it sounds very much of its time while also maintaining that certain timelessness inherent in all great pop music. With its tight melodies, intricate guitar work (check the interstitial bits on “Burning with Optimism’s Flame”) and sharp socio-political lyrical observations (“Living Through Another Cuba”), XTC proved themselves to be one of the most interesting – let alone consistent – groups to spring forth from the miasma of post-punk. Yet despite its unimpeachable brilliance (“Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me),” anyone?) they were always destined to be a cult act, vehemently adored by those in the known and largely ignored by the masses.
Of the five singles released from Black Sea, only Colin Moulding’s “Generals and Majors” charted in the U.S., reaching a measly 104. Meanwhile, “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)” hit number 16 on the U.K. charts and didn’t even merit an appearance on the American singles charts. Listening to the difference between the two, it’s obvious why the former succeeded, at least in America. While both are brilliant bits of incessantly catchy pop, “Generals and Majors” is far more immediate to listeners not accustomed to the same fare that had been blowing up the British charts less than a decade before.
Indeed, “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)” possesses a hook that would’ve made the late Marc Bolan proud in both its relative simplicity and undeniable catchiness. But it also, in its suite-like structure, offers discernible sections with their own individual hooks and tongue-in-cheek lyrics that were perhaps more accessible given its delivery and universal sentiments.
Only on the seven-minute claustrophobic noise-fest “Travels in Nihilon” does the band somewhat falter, leaving behind their pop smarts for a more avant-garde approach that never really comes together. It’s not particularly bad, but it simply isn’t up to the level of that which surrounds it, making its failings all the more apparent. It’s not simply due to the attempt to create something a bit more progressive; there are plenty of instances here of XTC incorporating avant-garde elements that work in service to the song. “Smokeless Zone,” with its frenetic percussion, raging vox humana and Cold War-era nuclear war paranoia on full display succeeds where “Travels in Nihilon” fails, reconciling the band’s disparate elements into one cohesive whole.
Bigger, better and even more assured than Drums and Wires, Black Sea is another early triumph in a career full of them. It’s brilliant, fun, insightful and ultimately catchy as hell. What more could you ask for?