XTC – Skylarking

XTC - SkylarkingI bought this album when it first came out and was immediately entranced. I lost it a few years ago, and only managed to find it again today. It’s not that difficult to find, but I have very limited time for that sort of thing. The reason I wanted it back was that after all the time without the disk to listen to, I still found myself singing bits of the album to myself.

This is not an album for everyone, by any stretch. A severe diversion from earlier XTC, this album contains none of the punk/new wave with which the band first made their mark, and yet it’s unmistakably an XTC album. When I listen to this album, I have always thought that this is the type of music John Lennon would have produced had he survived. There are some extremely Beatles-esque sections, but the themes are very mature. There are also some very somber (if not experimental) sections which I could see Lennon exploring.

I couldn’t critique this album without mentioning Todd Rundgren. Whoever conceived of bringing Todd in to produce an XTC album deserves a pat on the back. It’s unusual to see a producer of that magnitude brought in when the band includes someone with the creative talents of Andy Partridge. Todd is so influential that it’s almost unheard of for his tastes to not show in one of his productions (e.g. the Bourgeois Tagg album which was released at about the same time as this one). I had forgotten that Todd produced this album until I read the liner notes a few minutes ago. It’s also interesting to note that the liner notes give Todd credit for the “continuity concept”. Given that this is very nearly a concept album, I have to wonder how much input Todd had in the final product. I would think if he was instrumental (pun intended) in the underlying concept, we’d hear more of his influence. Since we don’t, I’m a bit puzzled by that idea. Still, it’s a stunning album, so on with the show.

The album opens like the first Klaatu album, and sounds almost as whimsical. “Summer’s Cauldron” draws a picture of “Summertime and the living is easy”, but there’s a surreal undertone underlying the entire piece. He tells us “Please don’t pull me out, I’m relaxed in the undertow”. On the surface it’s all peace and love – “Miss Moon lays down and Sir Sun stands up” – and that’s definitely the scene of the song. Still, Andy is singing about a situation that, while pastoral in the extreme, he knows he’s (forgive the pun) in over his head when he adds “Me, I’m found floating round and round like a bug in brandy”. This song also introduces the concept which guides the album: the seasonal procession. We begin in high Summer, and we’ll end in late Fall.

“Grass” marks the happiest point on the album, and is really more an extension of the first song rather than a piece unto itself. This song increases the East Indian flair of the first song, but it’s still a subtle effect. This is a very happy, simple song about making out while high. It completes the first section of the album.

Our couple has had the early “magical” portion of their relationship in “The Meeting Place,” and now they’re maturing. She’s working now, and her life is more regulated. She’s taken up smoking. Still, they can sneak out for a tryst on her lunch hour at the meeting place, but they have so much passion for each other that she’ll be “late back again”.

But in “That’s Really Super, Supergirl,” as her career grows, she’s forced to make endless choices between job and boyfriend. Guess who loses? It’s not him that’s claiming she’s super – it’s her co-workers. In the end, he’s swept “like dirt underneath your cape”. He “might be an ape, but I used to feel super”. Not anymore.

In “Ballet For A Rainy Day,” we get a picture of how he spends his days these days. He’s painting. He’s trying to be true to his youthful ideals. But no matter how he tries, he feels trapped in a rainy day. She’s climbing the ladder, while he sees no progress.

And the inevitable happens. “1000 umbrellas couldn’t catch all the rain that drained out of my head when you said we were over.” In typical response, he can’t see what she’s saying, and has to interpret it in context with his current situation – “and just when I thought that my vista was golden in hue.” He wallows through misery, but vows to pick up and carry on.

And he does. He works at his painting and he works at her. Seasons pass, and he keeps trying to win her back. As she grows in her business career, he grows in his calling as a painter. He makes her think about life outside her cubicle. He makes her think about having a family. He even makes her think about God (“Who’s pushing the pedals on the Season Cycle?”) Finally when Spring comes around and life is waking up all around her (“It’s growing green”), she takes him back.

Now, in “Earn Enough For Us,” it’s his turn. He wants to provide for her. He’s taken a job, and he wants to be the breadwinner. He wants to buy a house and settle down in the whole DIY thing. He must have done a good job, because she wants to get married. Before long he finds out why she wants to get married – she’s pregnant. He tells her he’ll get a second job to help pay for the baby, but he’s not sure he wants to get married.

But the “Big Day” comes. It “could be heaven; could be hell in a cell for two”. Either way, he’s committed. They do the deed, despite all the advice to the contrary.

But our hero gets his big break all of a sudden. His painting is recognized, and suddenly his creative juices are in demand. He begins working at a feverish pace. He’s in his studio constantly. He finds he simply doesn’t have the time to spend with the wife he worked so hard to earn. More than that, he finds her a nuisance. Any time that she wants to spend with him takes away from time he could be using to create a new painting. In short, he doesn’t “need another satellite”. And of course, that sentiment encompasses his child as well. More time passes and they remain “Circling we’ll orbit another year, two worlds that won’t collide.” Now instead of lying beside him, Miss Moon “still tries to steal the tide away”.

“The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” is the quirkiest song on the album. While most of the songs have the aforementioned Beatles feel about them, this one is fashioned after a 60’s style jazz combo – something I’ve always found to be very inaccessible. Still, I probably relate more to this song than any other on the album. The entire sentiment is captured in the first lines, “The man who sailed around his soul, from East to West, from pole to pole, with Ego as his drunken captain, Greed, the mutineer, had trapped all reason in the hold.” He gives himself over to his career, forgetting the lesson his wife taught him along with everything else. The magic is gone, the dream is over. Eventually he realizes what he’s sacrificed, but it’s far too late.

“Dear God” is the focal point of the entire album. We’ve come a long way from the carefree images of the early songs. This song is a duet sung by a father and child who are nowhere near each other. Both see the cruelty of the world, and both reach the same conclusion. But they do it apart from each other. Perhaps the sins of the father are paid by the son. They sing of the problems of the world, and how they can’t believe that a benevolent god would allow them to happen. The irony is in the title itself. To whom are they singing? As with the vast majority of us – even those claiming to be atheists – when push comes to shove, if you were brought up with a Judeo-Christian training, you fall back on the concept of God when all else fails. The child is calling on God because that’s where you go when you really need help. The father is turning back to God after years of neglect, simply because he has no other place to turn. He never managed to replace that belief system that was ingrained in him as a child. The result is a gut-wrenching polemic that tears a reaction from anyone who listens to it.

It’s not clear just who dies in “Dying”. It may be his child that dies. It could, however, be himself that dies. Rather than a song of death, this could be a song of rebirth where our hero lets go of the pain and finds the ability to grow and move on. That could explain why his reaction to the death is “I don’t want to die like you.” No matter how we die, almost any of us would say we don’t want to die that way. Death is seldom peaceful and never pretty.

“Sacrificial Bonfire” is a bookend piece. While it may not appear to, it does indeed wrap up the themes of the album. It tells of an Autumn Harvest Festival, but it’s clearly told from the perspective of an observer. It doesn’t have the frenzied feel of a participant, but the heartfelt rhythmic tempo of someone who watches and feels the ceremony in his soul. We also revisit the career of our hero with the brightness of the bonfire surrounded by the blackness of the Autumn night. “And the clothes that were draped was all that told man from ape.” Instead of taking part in the festival, he’s painting the scene. Perhaps the man who wooed his wife by showing her the world in which she lived found his salvation in a ceremony that took him back to that world – even if he was too old to participate directly. That may be the ultimate ironic twist. He felt he had to deny one of his earliest beliefs, but as he inevitably returned to the beliefs of his youth, he had moved so far up the “verdant spiral” of the Season Cycle that all he could do was watch and remember. We have no real idea 4 out of 4how many years the album crosses, but we almost always know what season we’re in.

As I said before, this isn’t for everyone. However, if you like the presentation, these songs will stick with you for years. The concepts are terribly human, and are not limited to little rubber people who don’t shave yet. It’s certainly worth a listen.

Order this CD

  1. Summer’s Cauldron (3:15)
  2. Grass (3:05)
  3. The Meeting Place (3:13)
  4. That’s Really Super, Supergirl (3:22)
  5. Ballet For A Rainy Day (2:50)
  6. 1000 Umbrellas (3:44)
  7. Season Cycle (3:21)
  8. Earn Enough For Us (2:54)
  9. Big Day (3:32)
  10. Another Satellite (4:16)
  11. The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul (3:25)
  12. Dear God (3:36)
  13. Dying (2:31)
  14. Sacrificial Bonfire (3:46)

Released by: Virgin
Release date: 1986