Oranges and Lemons was the most commercially successful release XTC had made to date.
Oranges and Lemons takes its title from an allusion to a nursery rhyme in Skylarking’s watercolor-washed “Ballet for a Rainy Day”: “Orange and lemon/ Raincoats roll and tumble/ Together, like fruit tipped from a tray.” Andy Partridge had mused about lemons before, of course, on XTC staple “Senses Working Overtime” (“trying to taste the difference ‘tween a lemon and a lime” ). Fruit has been a motif for the band, a metaphor for life’s great bounty and the essential enjoyments. Here, the reference is less delicate; it’s all pulp and color. The cover art itself recalls Milton Glaser posters with swirling figures of psychedelic citrus; like a scratch ‘n’ sniff version of Yellow Submarine. If Skylarking was a poet’s tableau, Oranges and Lemons is the highlighted texts of a frustrated philosopher.
Having parted ways with Skylarking producer Todd Rundgren – (“What a prick” Rundgren (still!) said of Partridge in a recent interview with Marc Maron) – XTC chose first-timer Paul Fox to step in, presumably to restore near-complete creative control to the famously authoritarian Partridge. To wit, Oranges and Lemons is neither concise nor subtle, made up of 15 songs, each of which is its own detail-rich universe. The instrumentation is (literally) all over the map: newcomer instruction manual “Garden of Earthly Delights” sounds like it was scored in Marrakesh while “Hold Me My Daddy” embraces the southernmost part of the continent with its Afro-pop coda, lending a postcolonial slant to this pacifist’s lament.
So while the curation strategy seemed to be “include everything,” it’s remarkable how cohesive this double album feels. Partridge squares the circle by organizing the songs into four short-burst life-cycles. By side three, things begin spiraling down. Feel-good anthem “Merely a Man” reallocates godly power to the mortal coil with the ecstatic affirmation, “That with logic and love/ We’ll have power enough/ To raise consciousness up/ And for lifting humanity/ Higher!” Barely a blink goes by in the transition to Colin Moulding’s “Cynical Days” where a Harmon-muted trumpet pierces the composition’s tidal swells of resignation. The trumpet carries over into “Across This Antheap,” blistering as a restless siren. There’s a granular, sibilant spoken word undercurrent – “Ziggedy zig zag just look at ’em” – a mantra dissected from our insect brains. “And all the world’s babies are crying still/ While all the police cars harmonize with power drills/ As jets and kettles form a chord with shrieking gulls/ Accompanied by truncheons keeping time on human skulls.” It’s a litany of mass dysfunction, and Partridge spits out this last phrase with convincing existential panic.
But Partridge tempers his teeth-gnashing with grace. The frenzy of “Across This Antheap” is cooled by the sonorous “Hold me/ Hold me/ Hold me” a capella of the comparatively buoyant “Hold Me My Daddy.” We’d be decimated by the grim realpolitik of “Here Comes President Kill Again” if not for the confetti cannon shot off by follow-up track “The Loving.” In these three 4-track suites, the let-down doesn’t exist without a rise-up. (This premise most figuratively evident on the what-the-fuck-ever novelty track “Pink Thing,” Partridge’s ode to either his penis or his infant son, depending on whose word you take – “Pink thing/ Spit in my face/ I’d love you for it…”)
The inclusion of various trumpeting styles – the parade-route fanfare of “Merely a Man,” the free-jazz flutterings of “Miniature Sun,” the sideways-world militarism of “Here Comes President Kill Again” – introduces a throughline to otherwise disparate songs and satisfies Partridge’s “trumpet-obsessed” urges. “If you ever want some bright splashes of yellow crayon on a track, grab a trumpet,” Partridge recommended in a 2009 interview. Otherwise stitched together through cross-fades and metaphorical motifs, these songs form emotional attachments to one another and make this double album resonate more like a short symphony.
Having channeled his rage in Skylarking’s “Dear God,” the spiritual bent of Oranges and Lemons feels like the work of a maturing atheist or a hyper-aware new parent – it just so happens that Partridge was both. “We’re all Jesus, Buddha and the Wizard of Oz” is a lyric he delivers with a mix of certitude, liberation and relief. Partridge concludes the album with “Chalkhills and Children,” long considered one of XTC’s greatest accomplishments – in part perhaps because the band rarely sounded so at peace. Everything floats in a state of serenity that is both wise and weary, cushioning him as he sings, “Chalkhills and children/ Anchor my feet/ Chalkhills and children/ Oddly complete.” The song fades out over the final minute with echoed vocals and tumbling drum fills, everything drifting, everything vaporizing. It’s a send-off to the modern condition. And if we’re being lulled to sleep as Partridge suggests, it’s only to slide into the next level of consciousness.
It may not have particularly mattered to the band, but Oranges and Lemons was the most commercially successful release XTC had made to date, dropping in 1989 at a sweet spot in time when the alternative music scene was on the rise. The jangle pop of “Mayor of Simpleton” and Moulding’s temperate “King for a Day” earned spots on the Billboard charts, both in in the U.S. and U.K. “Well I don’t know how to write a big hit song,” Partridge quips in his… hit song. The incongruity is purposeful and perfect, XTC forever the band that leaves you with a wry smile and a wink.