Mummer rightfully holds a dear spot in the hearts of many XTC lovers.
XTC’s history is one of contradictions and frustrations, ironies and moments of sheer WTF? Consider that had the lovable English trio released Skylarking in 1983 rather than three years later, there might be legions tripping nostalgic for “Earn Enough for Us” instead of a cult that appreciates the deep, pulsing bass figures of “Wonderland.” Arriving one short year after the aptly named English Settlement, Mummer reveals an already creative band spreading its wings wider and getting ready for full flight.
There are some undeniable truths about the record: It marked the final appearance of drummer Terry Chambers, ushering in the era of the Swindon unit as a trio; it provides us with three Colin Moulding numbers and seven from Andy Partridge. Production comes from Steve Nye, who’d previously worked on Japan’s brilliant 1981 collection, Tin Drum, Bob Sargeant and the group itself. Live performance was, for this lot, now largely a thing of the past (aside from a Top of the Pops appearance contemporaneous to this effort).
There are already hints of later glories present: A sense of orchestration that sometimes surpasses the Beatles’ own quirks in terms of sheer audacity. Acoustic guitars that sound as organic as grass itself and the juxtaposition of the latest technologies with some of the oldest sound-making tricks known to man. The percussion of “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages” sounds more like horses clompling along on cobblestone than the cannon-fire drums in fashion during the heyday of Phil Collins.
If one were to bemoan the paucity of Moulding’s compositions, consider that “Deliver Us from the Elements” offers, roughly, all the strangeness one might need from any given long-player while simultaneously striking a balance between that newness and a haunting familiarity. Moreover, it provides a counterpoint to Partridge’s own far-outness (“Human Alchemy”).
But there are some cracks in the armor: “Ladybird” is a gorgeous composition with jazz-like chords and rhythms and a jauntiness that Partridge could practically trademark. The production, however, undercuts it. The tune feels claustrophobic. At times you half expect the song itself to cry out, “Let me out of here! I want to be free!” Given the insights one can gain from Partridge’s demo collections, Fuzzy Warbles, it’s quite correct to suspect that the unvarnished nature of the song in its primitive form may have outshined it in full dress.
That can also be said of “Me and the Wind.” What can’t be said about it, though, or about any of these 10 compositions, is that there’s a lack of ambition. Moulding and Partridge both demonstrate a desire to reach deep into the creative well for sounds and observations that upset our notions of both pop and the experimental. Only the closing “Funk Pop a Roll” offers a sign of that ambition being greater than conviction or ability. The title gives away all you need to know about the track itself.
Partridge, though, shines brightest via the aforementioned “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages,” which could have been an out-and-out hit were circumstances (and payola) on XTC’s side. Its delicate fidelity would become something Partridge would visit several more times, each time with greater conviction and authority (see also: Skylarking’s “Earn Enough for Us”), though, arguably, diminishing commercial returns.
Mummer rightfully holds a dear spot in the hearts of many XTC lovers and it was the beginning of a bright, bursting creative era that would culminate in a heavy flirtation with something called success via Skylarking and Oranges & Lemons. Let’s call it a record trapped between first and second tier in the band’s oeuvre, but it’s an album head-and-shoulders above what some of the Swindon gang’s contemporaries could’ve hoped for.