Nonsuch isn’t quite “the album that almost wasn’t,” but its backstory is a veritable soap opera of industry intrigue, ego management and happy accident.
Nonsuch isn’t quite “the album that almost wasn’t,” but its backstory is a veritable soap opera of industry intrigue, ego management and happy accident. Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons had proven to be more critical darlings than commercial jackpots, so the question became how best to convert XTC’s cleverness to cash? Unsatisfied with the 32 songs the band had submitted, the musical director for Virgin Records suggested a complete rewrite, a request that was summarily rejected by Andy Partridge – very likely with a hearty laugh and middle finger. And there everyone sat, until that director left and was replaced by someone more keen on the band’s new material.
Recording stalled again with difficulties in securing a suitable producer. Two former XTC collaborators were unavailable, and negotiations with several others fell apart. (It’s particularly gutting that the fee for Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones was out of reach – oh, what might have been!) Finally, recording got underway in the summer of 1991 with Elton John crony Gus Dudgeon in the producer’s chair. The partnership was mildly contentious yet cordial, and after so much bureaucratic delay, the band was eager to just get on with it.
Like its predecessor, the tracklist for Nonsuch is a scroll that keeps unfurling: at 17 tracks, the runtime spills over the hour mark. If Oranges and Lemons is a DayGlo poster, Nonsuch is a sketch rendered in charcoal and pastels. There is an undercurrent of maturity and wisdom here, the bleaker emotions now sounding palliative rather than fatalistic. “Rook,” perhaps the album’s most experimental track, contemplates mortality through black bird motifs and unsettling piano chords that plod like cinderblock boots. “Rook, rook/ Gaze in the brook/ If there’s a secret, can I be part of it?/ Crow, crow/ Before I’ll let go / Say is that my name on the bell?” A lone horn mirrors Partridge’s melody, the negative space in the composition emphasizing the solipsistic grief Partridge experienced while writing it (“I couldn’t even finish the demo because I was in tears,” Partridge said of the song).
“Wrapped in Grey” warms up this cold world, urging us to remember ourselves as artists above all. “Your heart is a big box of paints/ Just think how the Old Masters felt, they call/ Awaken you dreamers!,” Partridge sings, and as the chorus builds while the piano and strings crescendo, it feels like a sparkling firework. It’s an interesting footnote that both “Rook” and “Wrapped in Grey” (“adult market” songs according to Partridge) suffered indignities at the hands of the powers-that-be. Dudgeon was flippant about potentially scrapping “Rook,” Partridge’s favorite of the album, after some initial difficulties in putting the track to tape. Virgin selected “Wrapped in Grey” to be a single much to the band’s delight only to pull it in favor of the more traditional verse-chorus-verse lonely hearts club tune “The Disappointed” – a bait-and-switch that led to some legal tousling and their eventual departure from the label.
Musically, there are some notable innovations to be found on Nonsuch. The band was joined on percussion by Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks, a session musician with technical expertise and an appreciation for nuance. Keyboards have a strong voice in this collection – a Hammond organ leads the circus band in “Dear Madam Barnum,” airy organ pipes revive us from a barrage of strobing guitar effects in “The Ugly Underneath,” the outro of the über-literate ode “Then She Appeared” is a bubbling calliope. Most sentimentally, clouds of merry-go-round vapors swirl around the
fanciful lyrics of “Holly Up on Poppy,” Partridge’s ode to his little girl and her rocking horse: “Every second/ Spent with her’s/ A bulging wallet overstuffed/ With angel’s pay/ Laughter!”
Critics remember Nonsuch as one of XTC’s most political albums, and a number of the tracks do reflect the anxieties of the time. Colin Moulding’s “War Dance” was originally composed as a statement about the Falklands War, but was then reworked for Nonsuch as a reaction to the Persian Gulf War. Sociopolitical concerns bookend the record, as opener (and charting single) “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” allegorizes the demise of a just leader (the music video is ambiguous: JKF? RFK? Malcolm X?), and “Books Are Burning” closes out the album with a sense of somber knowingness. And yet the sting of XTC’s commentary has not weakened over these 25-plus years. It’s striking how relevant the content remains after all this time, how parked we seem to be on that arc of morality.
XTC would take a long break between Nonsuch and the release of their next project, Apple Venus Volume 1. Labels and lawsuits were changed and exchanged; core member Dave Gregory would leave the band. Nonsuch was indeed the end of a chapter. Always luminaries but never quite stars, their reputation resembled something like the cleverest line in “Humble Daisy”: “I’ll sing about you if nobody else will.”