Review Summary: Skylarking is XTC's worthy analogy for Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's. It may also stand as their like in quality.
XTC has been something of a well hidden secret by their limited but frighteningly zealous fan base. They did enjoy minimal commercial success that was given passage by their singles “Making Plans for Nigel” and “The Mayor of Simpleton”. Nowadays, hearing one of these songs resounding dimly through the mall or feebly coming through the radio at Subway, one might relegate XTC in their mind as some antiquated 80’s pop band whose music will soon be forgotten, drifting intangibly through the airwaves like lost balloons. This is tragic, because XTC have an immensely impressive and rather sizable treasure trove of a back-catalog which their singles only hint at.
Skylarking occurs somewhere in the middle of the band’s twelve-album sequence. They released 5 studio albums with a consistent lineup before vocalist/co-songwriter Andy Partridge fell victim to debilitating stage fright, which led the band to retire from touring and station themselves in the studio, after which drummer Terry Chambers withdrew his membership. There was a palpable evolution and maturation in XTC’s sound that could be traced to Chamber’s secession, though he had no hand in the songwriting. Their music, which was streamlined and usually anchored in a simple, repetitious groove, began to diversify, and augmented its dynamic range. This musical growth comes to sublime fruition on Skylarking.
The band also eased away from their endearingly quirky power-pop with a new-wave tilt, to the grounded but appropriately exploratory chamber pop found on this album. Though the influence was apparent since their beginning, the band is unabashedly forthright about drawing from The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Indeed, you can unmistakably hear XTC channeling Pet Sounds through songs like “Season Cycle” and “Sacrificial Bonfire”, the former whose structure and balmy, buoyant character echoes The Beach Boy’s own “Wouldn’t it be Nice”. The latter, written by bassist and co-writer Colin Moulding, would be right in its element on Brian Wilson’s Smile.
The musical and lyrical atmosphere that pervades the record (at least until the final track, which oozes religious disillusionment, and contains the album's only emotional crescendo), evokes a breezy, fertile spring day. “Summer’s Cauldron” begins with synthesized cricket and bird chirps, which brilliantly coalesce to form the rhythmic motif that supports the first two tracks. The album proceeds in this fashion for most of its duration; it knows no emotional highs or lows (until “Dear God”, that is). Partridge and Moulding sound unassailably content here, with Partridge taking lyrical cues from Oscar Wilde, and Moulding, tenderly reminiscing on times past, i.e. “Grass”.
The brilliance and relish that Skylarking offers owes much credit to Todd Rundgren’s spacious production, and generous but temperate orchestral arrangements. Take “1000 Umbrellas”, one of the best songs on the album. Without its thick fringe of strings, it would be a mere skeleton of a song, with only Partridge’s vocals and his acoustic guitar on a chromatic trip southward. Rundgren’s presence is prominent throughout Skylarking. More strings wash over the opening bars of “Grass”. A cello significantly adds gravity and urgency to “Dear God”. A solitary violin zips with impressive dexterity through the chorus of “Sacrificial Bonfire”. Rundgren was to Skylarking what George Martin was to The Beatles. The album is an unqualified classic, and a worthy analogy for Sgt. Pepper’s and Pet sounds, and although it didn’t generate anywhere near as much critical hubbub, it may also stand as their like in quality and completeness.