The emotional nakedness throughout is remarkable.
Having flirted with mainstream success in the United States in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, XTC fell suspiciously silent after 1992’s sublime Nonsuch. Engaged in prolonged battle with longtime home Virgin Records, the Swindon collective retired to the studio with some of its lushest, most imaginative material. Longtime guitarist Dave Gregory left the fold in the early moments of Apple Venus, apparently disillusioned with the heavy focus on orchestral instruments rather than the more traditional rock trappings of bass/drums/guitars. Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding had initially conceived of the record as a two-disc set a time when such expansive collections, especially from a “cult” band, would have been perceived as a throwback.
The duo opted to split the releases in two, with Apple Venus Volume 1 emerging in early 1999 as the first statement of a “new”-ish XTC. Partridge takes the lion’s share of the writing credits on this often eccentric but always intriguing collection. He had undergone a divorce, struggled with health problems and sobriety and emerged with a series of songs that seemed to touch on all matters of the heart. The resulting material would prove some of his most poignant and decidedly English songs.
Opener “River of Orchids” encapsulates the British prog and pop sounds of the ‘60s, drawing on Revolver-era Beatles sensibilities for its multi-layered and intricate sounds. The psychedelic stream of images (dandelions roaring in Piccadilly Circus, flowers replacing motorways) seems perfectly out of touch in the late ‘90s and yet remarkably prescient, predicating the prog rock resurgence in the coming decade. “Easter Theatre,” “Harvest Festival” and “Knights in Shining Karma” further capture the sense that one can’t quite figure out what’s going on and yet embraces the emotional complexities full stop.
Other tracks such as the ode to new love “I’d Like That” are explicit in their enthusiasm and naiveté; it’s the kind of song that would have been a hit in a different era. “Your Dictionary,” meanwhile, is its antithesis, cataloguing a series of slights and epithets that a former lover might attribute to Partridge himself. The longtime songwriter suggested in interviews some years later that he felt it was too much like a child screaming for an ice cream cone in the mall, but he was persuaded to include it.
The emotional nakedness throughout is remarkable. Previous XTC outings dodged sentimentality, while this collection embraces it via “Harvest Festival,” “The Last Balloon” and “I Can’t Own Her.” Additionally, the Englishness becomes more pronounced. At times, it’s easy to imagine Apple Venus as something plucked from a late ‘60s/early ‘70s crop of prog-folk affairs. There’s nothing in any of those songs that hints at commercial ambition, something that apparently fell by the wayside when things went pear shaped with Virgin. One could argue that XTC rarely if ever made albums that were exactly of their time, and this proves no exception.
Amid the sourness (“Your Dictionary”) and sentimentality (see above), there are moments of frivolity thanks to the underrepresented Colin Moulding—see the aptly titled “Frivolous Tonight” and “Fruit Nut.” It may be tempting to hear these as mere cast offs, filler to round out Partridge’s grand vision. Yet they serve as excellent counterpoints to the headier, haunted numbers. Like writer Graham Greene’s so-called “entertainments” (novels that were not meant to be literary), there’s something deceptively simple about Moulding’s pieces and, as one might predict, something equally English about them.
Though XTC could always dress up a composition, the 2005 Apple Box, which includes demos for this recording, reveals something we’ve known all along, that no matter what clothes you put on them, the songs of Partridge and Moulding are born from brilliance and shine no matter the accoutrements.