A eulogy for XTC’s hometown of Swindon.
It’s a big iron wheel, far too heavy to comfortably lift, coated with a fine layer of grease and coal dust even years after its decommission and removal. It had been part of a much bigger machine, probably a train or some sort of factory apparatus, connected to countless other wheels and gears, arms and pistons. This is the cover art for The Big Express, uncharacteristically monochrome for a band that sounds so fluorescent. It’s a visual cue that points to the album’s central theme: a eulogy for XTC’s hometown of Swindon, a railway town that was grappling at the time with the closure of Swindon Works, the locomotive maintenance and repair hub upon which its citizenry had thrived.
“The Everyday Story of Smalltown” is XTC’s “Penny Lane,” holding a parade for its quotidian tableaus and finding comfort in the workaday grind despite the grime it leaves on your hands by the end of the day. “Smalltown, coughing in the toilet/ Now who on Earth would spoil it?” reveals the anxiety that beleaguered Swindon along with thousands of industrial communities like it in the mid-‘80s as manufacturing plants and factories closed up shop. “I have lived here for a thousand years or maybe more/ And I’ve sheltered all the children who have fought the wars/ And as payment they make love in me/ Squeaky old beds, in bicycle sheds…/ And that’s how I’m fed…” Smalltown survives another day and another decade, as it’s always done. It picks up speed in the coda, adding a quick-stepping drumbeat and grandiose brass, the swell of busy instruments signifying the synchronicity of the townspeople’s’ daily routines as the song (purposefully) fades out.
Andy Partridge references the railways quite literally on “Train Running Low on Soul Coal,” a propulsive track syncopated with the chugs and shushes of locomotive steam. Partridge conflates a train heading full-steam to disaster with his own uneasiness about aging: “I’m a 30-year puppy doing what I’m told/ And I’m told there’s no more coal/ For the older engines/ Me train running low on soul coal.” The verses are quick, Partridge is practically scatting, and it might be too frenetically paced if not for the relief of the refrain. “Think I’m going south for the winter,” he sings, taking off like a snowbird. The song breathes for a minute with a spray of sleigh bells and major key melody before jumping back up on the track and racing recklessly forward.
“This World Over” is a survivor’s lament, Partridge mourning the consequences of a nuclear apocalypse, sounding only tender and defeated as he opens the song by sighing, “Ah well, that’s this world over.” The nihilism wears upbeat costumes in other tracks: Colin Moulding’s off-kilter opener “Wake Up” urges us to rise up against monotony, using stuttering beats, volleying guitar blips and an echoed female voice seemingly plucked out of a dreamscape. Partridge lets his crazy out in “Blue Overall,” one of XTC’s most unique, free-form dirges. The Linn drum looms large in this one, punching through periods of blank space as the blues “tar me a darker bluey black.” Partridge yelps with his trademark vocal quirks; bold melodic phrases morph into growling melismas, an enunciation is punctuated by an upturned rolling yowl. Partridge personifies the kind of blues that grab you by the shirt collar and shake some marbles loose.
The Big Express isn’t all dinge and doom: “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her” makes heavy use of mellotron and Pyrex dishes as percussion; “Shake You Donkey Up” is a hitchy-twitchy romp sung in an offbeat patois; Partridge and Moulding tweet like happy sparrows on the cutesy pop of “You’re the Wish (You Are) I Had.” The compositions are complex, bright and quirky, enjoying great benefit from big(ger) budget studio production as it had on Mummer and would continue to on the successor to The Big Express.
Two years would pass before the debut of Skylarking, and in retrospect it seems like a logical progression. Now that XTC had contemplated the industrial, it could leave bricks and engines behind for more pastoral motifs: things like grass, God. It turns out their big express was pulling out of the station, heading far out of town.