XTC, Skylarking (Virgin, 1986)
- Dave Gregory: Vocals, guitar, piano, synthesizer
- Andy Partridge: Vocals, guitar
- Colin Moulding: Vocals, bass guitar
Produced by Todd Rundgren
- Summer’s Cauldron
- The Meeting Place
- That’s Really Super, Supergirl
- Ballet for a Rainy Day
- 1000 Umbrellas
- Season Cycle
- Earn Enough for Us
- Big Day
- Another Satellite
- The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul
- Dear God
- Sacrificial Bonfire
It’s not that I don’t like pop music. I just have a few parameters.
I love top-flight singer/songwriters. I love intelligent lyrics. I love excellent arrangements featuring well-played instruments. I love songs with a timeless quality. In that arena, I can find sheer perfection.
When I told a friend I found those parameters in XTC’s Skylarking, he smiled and replied, “Well, it doesn’t get more perfect-er than that!” I loved how this album caused my friend to create a new word.
And he wasn’t wrong.
Skylarking is, to me, one of THE great moments in the history of pop music, period. It. Is. FLAWLESS.
To know this album is to know its legend, and how vocalist/guitarist Andy Partridge and producer Todd Rundgren took creative tension to the highest level. There’s no way I can tell the story as well as Partridge does in XTC’s This is Pop documentary. I suggest you go there for the full story. I’ll stick to talking about the music.
Skylarking was released in 1986. I had no idea it existed. I was just a year removed from what I call the King Crimson Renaissance. Progressive rock ruled my existence. Slowly, College rock was finding a foothold in my world as well. No doubt that was because the college radio stations also played a bit of prog in those days. Still, XTC managed to elude me, although I’m sure they got their share of college airtime.
The band came into my orbit in 1988, thanks to an Air Force friend who brought Skylarking to my dorm room, eager for me to hear one particular song. That song (which I’ll get to shortly) positively knocked me out. I all but demanded to hear the rest of the album. And am I ever glad I did.
No doubt I had heard my share of ambient noises on albums by the time I heard “Summer’s Cauldron.” Still, I couldn’t hear those sounds without flashing back to my summers at my grandmother’s house in Arkansas. The air was still and muggy, the bugs chirped and buzzed around me … and I would just lie in the grass, soaking it all in while being eaten alive by mosquitoes.
I’m quite certain my summers in Arkansas were the last thing XTC had in mind when they wrote the song and it’s immediate follow-up, “Grass.” Nevertheless, the band had reached me, and I was in for the haul.
While they didn’t sound like them, per se, songs like “The Meeting Place” and “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” made me think of Rubber Soul/Revolver-era Beatles. The music was incredibly clever and worthy of taking apart to figure out just how it was done. Or, you could just listen and sing along. Both methods of enjoyment worked just fine.
The album gets more and more brilliant as it moves along. I love the strings in “1,000 Umbrellas,” which took me back to the Beatles and “Eleanor Rigby.” Songs like these represented the very root of what I enjoyed about pop music. “Earn Enough for Us” felt like the apex of the “Intelli-Pop” sound on this album for me. It was simple, but contained a few complexities. It seemed cynical, but it was catchy. It was serious, but so much fun! And you couldn’t help but sing along. Isn’t that what pop music is supposed to induce?
My love of television shows like Mission: Impossible and James Bond movies led me to believe “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” was a song looking for a movie. I’m still waiting for that film. In the meantime, play whatever action sequence you like while the music takes you away.
Which leads us to the reason my friend brought me the CD on that fateful day in the first place. My parents (particularly my mother) were quite religious. Both my grandfathers were ministers. But the bug never really bit me. I didn’t dismiss Faith out of hand, but my military “dog tags” listed Agnostic as my religious preference. Why did I feel that way? I never could articulate my feelings. In the end, I didn’t need to. Andy Partridge did it for me in a little song called “Dear God.” The American Bible Belt (the most religious regions, that is) completely melted down. I could only smile broadly at what easily became one of my all-time favorite songs. It said everything I wanted to say.
(Once again, Partridge tells the full story better. You must see that documentary!)
To this day, I can’t play that song only once when I play the album. It’s the signature song. “Dear God” has everything one needs: a galvanizing topic; a lovely chord sequence; a beautiful melody; the proper tempo; and the deepest, most introspective lyrics I have ever heard. Feel free to disagree. I’ll die on this particular hill.
“Dear God” is so good, it almost seems a shame that Skylarking didn’t end there. That is, until you actually hear the last two tunes, “Dying” and “Sacrificial Bonfire” are both brilliant tunes.
This point is driven home particularly since Steven Wilson re-mixed the album and allowed a little breathing room between “Dear God” and “Dying.” Why those songs were run together originally is beyond me. You need to be allowed to catch your breath. Now you can. By the time “Bonfire” fades into the distance, you can exhale content in knowing you have been in the presence of sheer, unadulterated brilliance.
I’ve said in the past that anyone wanting to learn how to write pop music should listen to Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. And while I stand by that statement, the prospective songwriter would be doing himself a grave disservice if he didn’t play Skylarking as part of that study. Albums like this don’t come along very often, regardless of how hard artists might try. Take advantage, and learn from this recording.
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Far and away XTC’s best album and probably one of the best overall albums of the 80’s.
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I didn’t know this album at all. The lyrics, when you can hear them, are terrific; not so impressed by the music, but perhaps it grows on you. It does, indeed, get better as it goes along, especially on the 2001 Virgin remaster which inserts Mermaid Smiled as track 11 and moves Dear God to the end. Thanks for bringing my attention to this one.
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Try the Steven Wilson remix. More separation in the instruments, “Dear God” moves back to its original spot, but gets more room to breathe. Quite brilliant.
I first heard this band in 1980. Skylarking is indeed one of their best. I’m wondering if you have heard of the band ‘Monsters of Folk ‘? One of the members is Jim James from ‘My Morning Jacket’ . They do a song w/ the same title ‘Dear God’ . I think you’d like it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BnFowzj9ck
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I’ll look into it. Thanks!