Album Review: XTC - English Settlement

Almost exactly three and a half minutes into Runaways, the first track on XTC’s magnum opus English Settlement, the guitars become hushed and lone piano notes drop as if into oblivion. It’s one of many moments of sheer brilliance that litter all of the fifteen songs on the record. They act as lily pads in ponds of circling 12-string guitars, off kilter drum patterns and pan-optic lyrics.

I’ll be honest, it took me quite a while to understand why XTC are so acclaimed. Not due to the album being impenetrable – in many ways it’s the opposite. Here was a band creating what was essentially pop disguised in a rock uniform. Lead singer and guitarist Andy Partridge, the creative force behind the band, penned irresistibly fruitful melodies with lyrics both introspective and all-encompassing. Along with secondary guitarist Dave Gregory, he crafted inventive guitar lines that served as the mounting for Terry Chamber’s under-appreciated drumming. Colin Moulding completes the band as the bassist (and one of the best of the period at that) and secondary vocalist, contributing a handful of songs per record. They sound typically post-punk. But XTC are different. It’s difficult to put your finger on but whatever the reason, I implore you to invest some time in their work rather than discarding upon first listen.

1982’s English Settlement was XTC’s first attempt at a double album. As with most double albums, it comes from a time when the band were at their creative peak, bubbling over with inventiveness whilst simultaneously perfecting what had come before. The album presents itself as XTC’s first love affair with the pastoral. With four albums of new wave / post-punk explorations behind them, English Settlement sees the harsh guitar lines traded for acoustic layers and chiming rhythms.

Nowhere is XTC’s new sound more evident than on Jason and the Argonauts, where Partridge and Gregory almost become poly-rhythmic in their playing, duelling one another for the spotlight and melody – it’s dizzying. Here Andy Partridge spits our words as only he can; a verse melody so tightly wound that it alone is representative of the exploratory lyrics. The chorus grounds and affirms that this is still our beloved XTC with the title of the song not being coincidental as the Argonaut’s references continue. It’s almost child-like in its admiration, as if Partridge himself can’t fathom his wandering lyrics. A chorus so whimsical, juxtaposed against cutting verses (“I’ve seen acts of every shade of terrible come from man-like creatures”) is what lifts him and Moulding into the pantheon of great songwriters.

You’d be forgiven for only knowing XTC for their 70s/80s singles like Making Plans For Nigel and Senses Working Overtime, or even for not knowing them at all. They are a band that exist in relative ambiguity.
– Kieran Baddeley

The album contracts and grows as it goes. The free-running and deceptively dark Runaways flows into the herk-jerk of Ball and Chain,Yacht Dance tumbles into All of a Sudden (It’s Too Late) and the difficult time signatures of English Roundabout seethe into the cathartic and bitter Snowman. With Melt The Guns standing proud as English Settlement’s superb centrepiece, its track listing and flow are perfect. This is evidently due to the production, after ditching Steve Lilywhite after two successful albums. XTC felt as if they could do just as well. They did better. The production is flawless, belonging to no era and any era at the same time. All the hallmarks of 1980s production are gone, even the synths that playfully dance across the album somehow sound perfectly at home. The production, like the album, is timeless.

You’d be forgiven for only knowing XTC for their 70s/80s singles like Making Plans For Nigel and Senses Working Overtime, or even for not knowing them at all. They are a band that exist in relative ambiguity. Some blame the band’s toxic relationship with Virgin during the pinnacle of their creativity, some blame the band’s decision not to tour due to lead singer and guitarist Andy Partridge’s crippling stage fright and oft-recalled breakdown, some blame their music for being too artsy for mass consumption. Many reviews have been keen to make this a focal point but in all honesty, it doesn’t matter when the result of all the unfairness and heart ache is a discography of near-perfection. Granted, it’s a shame that XTC have remained relatively undiscovered, no band deserves it more. However, more and more bands are beginning to profess an influence in both Partridge’s complex song craft and Moulding’s more prosaic approach.

Much like their ambiguity, their best album is often fought over. Some think it’s the punk-infatuated 1979 album Drums and Wires, others the pop-rock of 1980s Black Sea, many believe it to be the 1986 pastoral masterpiece of Skylarking and others the string-drenched Apple Venus (Volume One) from 1999. All are masterpieces. However, for me, English Settlement is the jewel in XTC’s beautifully embellished crown.