Rundgren and XTC—a dream fit for eternal summer.
You may have heard the stories about clashes between producer Todd Rundgren and bandleader Andy Partridge, but don’t let tales of woe spoil your experience of the magic that is Skylarking. There was always a certain maximalism to XTC’s compositions. Yes, they were tight, but they were not usually what you’d describe as “spare.” It is a striking characteristic of this album that, despite the intricate arrangements, it feels like the most direct and frill-less XTC album, and also arguably their very best one.
The band had been a studio-only act since 1982. Their drummer, Terry Chambers, left during the recording of Mummer, which led the group to start working with session players. XTC found the time to indulge in a side project called the Dukes of Stratosphear, recording an album of psychedelic pastiches. They had also begun to suffer a bit commercially. So they found themselves in the studio in Woodstock, New York to record Skylarking, kids in a candy store, surrounded by Rundgren’s array of synths and samplers, which he himself used to provide the songs with arrangements and put Partridge and Colin Moulding’s songs into order.
The results are famously glorious. The album’s opener, “Summer’s Cauldron,” opens with the whir of insects and a melodica motif, introducing us to the baroque psychedelia of the song cycle to come (“Trees are dancing drunk with nectar/ Grass is waving underwater/ Please don’t pull me out, this is how I would want to go”).
The sense of childlike wonder continues with “Grass,” written by Moulding, a delicate tune lilted along by acoustic guitars, light percussion and strings. The bassist also contributes the romantic, mysterious “The Meeting Place,” as well as wedding-song “Big Day” and the closers “Dying” and “Sacrificial Bonfire”: the first a melancholy, creepy tune of a departed love, and the second a kind of ritualistic hymn, a song of sacrifice, scapegoating, burning and change.
Meanwhile, Partridge’s senses are very much working overtime (this joke never gets old, right?). He contributes “That’s Really Super, Supergirl,” an upbeat paean to a female superhero; “Earn Enough for Us,” a love song inflected with social satire; “Season Cycle,” a bouncing pop song with Beach Boys harmonies; and heaping servings of melodic invention in “Mermaid Smiled,” “Another Satellite” and “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul,” which boasts a quite fusion-y feel.
But sometimes clichés are true, and this one is—“Ballet for a Rainy Day”/“1000 Umbrellas” (you really can’t separate them) are a godsend. With a chord progression that could’ve made the Beatles jealous, “Ballet” is XTC’s answer to “Penny Lane”: “Orange and lemon/ Raincoats roll and tumble/ Together, just like fruit tipped from a tray/ Pineapple wet heads/ Watch new hairdos crumble/ As scenery sunflight shifts away.” This “silent film of melting miracle play” slides toward “1000 Umbrellas,” the dark, heartbreaking side of “Ballet” with its insistent strings and Partridge’s theatrical, increasingly menacing vocals. In retrospect, this song’s lyrics are the strongest of the bunch, unpacking the same metaphor over and over—umbrellas spilling with rain and tears—to grim and compelling effect.
There are very few albums that are in Skylarking’s company; this is universal music that could only have been born of extraordinary idiosyncrasy, dizzying ambition and unswerving willingness to both embrace and disrupt musical form. Rundgren and XTC—a dream fit for eternal summer.