XTC threw itself a great 10th anniversary party in the form of this album.
By the time XTC released English Settlement in 1982, many things had happened.
They had traded in a keyboardist (Barry Andrews) for a second guitarist (Dave Gregory) after their first two albums. They had scored hits with “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me),” surely two of the oddest songs to make the charts. They had worked with producer Steve Lillywhite on two albums—Drums and Wires and Black Sea—and they had opened for bands like The Police and The Cars, not to mention headlined tours of their own. The band’s brilliant fourth album, Black Sea, was a critical and commercial success.
Any other band would have run out of steam. But on the 10th anniversary of their existence, XTC did what came naturally—release the longest album of their career!
The “hit” on this one is “Senses Working Overtime.” A peculiar, almost eerie tune that toes the line between a good trip and a bad one during the verse before leading to what is one of the most buoyantly catchy choruses in XTC’s discography—“One, two, three, four, five/ Senses working overtime/ Trying to taste the difference between a lemon and a lime/ Pain and pleasure and the church bells softly chime.” Andy Partridge’s pop intuitions had struck gold once more.
Bassist Colin Moulding is better represented on this album than on Black Sea, contributing four songs, the opening “Runaways” and “Ball and Chain” as well as, toward the end of the album, “Fly on the Wall” and “English Roundabout.” “Ball and Chain” combines a charming “Getting Better”-like feel with lyrics that serve as a kind of working-class lament, whereas “English Roundabout” is reggae in 5/4 time.
The opener, “Runaways,” might be my favorite Moulding song on the album, with a pulsing drum beat and an affecting narrative of a youth escaping an abusive household. The lyrics are especially strong here: “Pacing street lamps on the highway/ Haystack for your bed/ In the morning we will find you/ In papers to be read.” It also helps set the thematic tone for the album, which, as its title suggests, develops a Kinks-like portrait/critique of contemporary British society combined with a Townshend-like theatricality.
This is especially evident on “No Thugs in Our House,” a kind of miniature theater piece with Graham as its star, a young boy held back by his commandeering parents—“And all the while Graham slept on/ Dreaming of a world where he could do/ Just what he wanted to.” The XTC classic “Yacht Dance,” on the other hand, skewers the rich to the beat of an island rhythm.
Songs such as “Melt the Guns” and “Leisure” continue in this satirical vein. Though the topics are serious and the music certainly bears the hallmarks of Partridge-ian invention, I found that they dragged a bit, as did “It’s Nearly Africa,” a song I would have left off the album.
The strongest moments, however, seemed less those of overt satire or critique than those of experimental pop, which is what XTC does so well. Such as “All of a Sudden (It’s Too Late),” a song that is lyrically and musically more abstract despite its disarming lyrical directness: “Life’s a jigsaw/ You get the straight bits/ But there’s something missing in the middle.”
Likewise for the anti-racist tune “Knuckle Down”—“It doesn’t matter if you win or lose a little face/ Knuckle down and love that race.”—and the Police-y anti-sexism number “Down in the Cockpit”—“Man need the woman to pull him right out of it.” Though these songs are fairly direct in their intent, they are less weighed down by their lyrical content than other songs, and musically they are more dynamic, less overbearing than some of the album’s weaker moments.
The album concludes on an ambiguous note with the delightfully puzzling lament “Snowman,” replete with jingling bells—“It isn’t even winter but I’m freezing, freezing/ This sort of feeling isn’t pleasing/ And what I want to know, man/ Why, oh why does she treat me like a snowman?” A real nightmare before Christmas, brilliant and unplaceable.
In short, English Settlement is the album of a band bursting with invention. At times, it pays the price for its inventiveness, not being quite as cohesive as some of the albums that surround it (though having too many great ideas for your own good is not a bad problem to have). That said, in 1982 XTC threw itself a great 10th anniversary party in the form of this album, which doubles down on the ambition of the band’s prior efforts and continues to break new musical ground.
At this point, the band had already made history. And yet, unbelievably, its best was still yet to come. But the next time you read about how ambitious a band has gotten on its latest album, listen to English Settlement and you’ll hear what it sounds like to take a risk or two.