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January 09, 2003 - Image 11

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The Michigan Daily, 2003-01-09

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12B - The Michigan Daily - Weekend Magazipe - Thursday, January 9, 2003

_ _ . T _ _ s

Skylarking a unique journey

By Daniel Yowen
Daily Arts Writer
The members of XTC desperately
needed a hit in 1985. Virgin Records,
the band's record label at the time, was
breathing down its neck and demand-
ing profits, essentially giving the band
one last chance to earn its keep. Ever
since the British group stopped touring
°- in 1982, its album sales had continual-
ly diminished, leaving little evidence
that XTC could do more than barely
scrape by as a studio-only band with a
cult following.
Even despite the fact that XTC made
two great albums of its signature intelli-
gent pop after 1982, the band's members
were unable to attract the attention that
they deserved. The time had come for
the band to take a gamble in the hopes
of winning new fans and its label's
respect. Andy Partridge, Colin Mould-
ing and Dave Gregory culled their

resources - the many songs they had
written and demoed - and started
thinking about producers. Virgin sug-
gested Todd Rundgren, the band accept-
ed, and the rest is history.
As admirers of Rundgren's solo
work, his band, Utopia, and his skill at
producing other
artists, the lads in
the band was eager
to begin recording at
Rundgren's Wood-
stock, N.Y. studio.
Against the expecta-
tion that the sessions
would be a pleasant
experience, the stubborn Partridge and
Rundgren immediately began to butt
heads, kicking off months of strenuous
recording. Also unexpected, but this
time fortunately, was the fact that the
finished product would become XTC's
most dynamic, cohesive and all-around

*

best record.
Rundgren had a particular vision for
the album that would become Skylark-
ing. In fact, he ordered and conceptual-
ized XTC's demos well before the band
even arrived, structuring a concept
album that ebbed and flowed. Rundgren
had in mind a collec-
tion of songs based
around themes of
nature and love,
arranged to mirror
the progression of a
summer day, the four
seasons or the phases
of human life. Each
song would blend into the next, creating
a unified listening experience.
Despite all the turmoil that accompa-
nied its creation, the end product is
breathtaking. Rundgren's unusual
recording practices, authoritative behav-
ior, harsh criticism and sarcasm made
for a very uncomfortable experience,
said to Partridge and Moulding. Par-
tridge, initially unhappy with the way
Skylarking turned out, now admits that
it is one of his favorite XTC albums.
The sun rises in opening track "Sum-
mer's Cauldron," a song about carefree
immersion in nature, complete with
crickets chirping and bees buzzing. Next
come the bright shades of whimsical
infatuation on the. Moulding-penned
tracks, "Grass" and "The Meeting
Place," leading straight into relationship
troubles in the clever and evidently
Rundgren-influenced "That's Really
Super, Supergirl."
After the sunny morning begin the
afternoon showers of "Ballet for a Rainy
Day," and the downpour of the gloomy,
orchestral "1000 Umbrellas." These
cathartic tracks give way to the philo-
sophical musings of the Beach Boys-
inspired "Season Cycle," which
epitomizes Skylarking's themes, asks
weighty questions of the human condi-
tion in a light, airy and spirited style.
Mid-afternoon - the beginning of
side two of the original vinyl - covers
the topic of marriage. The optimistic
and Beatle-esque "Earn Enough for
Us" and the conversely cynical "Big
Day" examine the intricacies of long-

term commitments, while dusk settles
in with "Another Satellite," an autobio-
graphical story about fending off an
extramarital crush.
"The Man Who Sailed Around His
Soul" is a suave, Bond movie-style
lounge tune about an aged man who
reflects on his life to find nothing but
pain and regret.
The next song on the album is the one
that, arguably, single-handedly saved
XTC. "Dear God" was originally not
featured on Skylarking, but after its
placement on the B-side of the "Grass"
single, it garnered shocking amounts of
attention from American college radio
stations, which started playing it rather
than the intended single. The poignant
and controversial song was framed in
the ironic form of a letter to God from a
child that doesn't believe in him.
"Dear God" proved to be thought-
provoking as well as anger-inducing,
driving some radical Christians to write
angry letters to Partridge and, in a few
cases, even to threaten violence against
radio stations that played the song. All of
the controversy, positive and negative,
created an enormous buzz, leading Vir-
gin to recall the initial copies of Skylark-
ing and quickly press newv versions with

Courtesy of Geffen
XTC's Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding in 1999.

"Dear God" blended in as if it had been
there all along. The album subsequently
spent more than six months on the U.S.
album charts, giving XTC the boost that
it needed.
On the album, "Dear God" leads into
"Dying," a heartfelt song about fearing
the inevitability of death, similar in
theme to "The Man Who Sailed
Around His Soul," the song it originally
followed. The record then closes with
the rousing "Sacrificial Bonfire,"
which celebrates the life cycle and
reaches back to many points on the
album, most notably, "Season Cycle."
"Bonfire" points out that death is not
an ending, but a necessary component
of life's cycle - that only through
death can new life be born.
It is remarkable how completely in
tune songwriters Partridge and Mould-
ing were in writing the songs that ended
up on Skylarking. Their tone and subject
matter are so closely intertwined that it
truly is as if one person wrote every
song. Skylarking is as cohesive an
album as there is, period. It runs the
gam4 of human emotions and musical
styles without being all over the map.
Skylarking is at once highly eclectic and
yet entirely cohesive, paradoxically per-
fect in a strange and magical way that
truly captures some of the inexplicable
wonders of life.
XTC is a band that has been at its
finest hour for practically the last twenty
years, always turning out music that is
unique, imaginative, thoughtful and
intelligent. Nonetheless, the difficult
birth of Skylarking, due to the fusion of
both XTC's and Rundgren's creative
genius, makes-it a project that is
absolutely one-of-a-kind, and a master
work with which music lovers owe it to
themselves to become acquainted.
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