Thursday, November 11, 2010

XTC “English Settlement” (1982)

What on earth was I thinking of? After English Settlement I gave up on XTC for 20 years! There's simply no excuse. I knew the first time I heard English Settlement I was listening to a classic and yet I still let my interest lapse. This is probably one of the most perfectly crafted double albums by any English band, notwithstanding Exile On Main Street and London Calling. It contains such complex, intricate constructions the word "song" seems too restrictive a word to describe their function. Like an absorbing novel, a spectacular movie or a sumptuous meal, this album can be enjoyed on many levels. There was an abridged version of English Settlement released at the same time as this double and I'm aware that many prefer it, feeling it cuts out the filler. I've never heard it and I never want to. Listening to English Settlement today, I can't think of a single track I'd want to get rid of. It would be like choosing a favourite from among my kids.

Considering how perfect this album is I've always felt that it was around the release of English Settlement that it all started going wrong for XTC. An overstressed and exhausted Andy Partridge was overtaken by stage-fright and suffered a breakdown soon after the album's release. As a result the album passed relatively unnoticed. How huge could this band have been if given the opportunity to publicise and tour English Settlement? How huge could this band have been if Partridge had ever been able to overcome his fear? Tragic really.

Even though Colin Moulding contributes the ska rhythms of "English Roundabout", the twisted "Fly On The Wall" and the excellent "Ball And Chain", English Settlement really is Partridge's album. "Senses Working Overtime" would provide the band with their only top ten single. "All Of A Sudden (It's Too Late)" is simply sublime. "Yacht Dance" is a mix of pure pop and English folk and Dave Gregory's Spanish guitar is a revelation and the flamenco rhythms continue to ripple through anti-gun rant "Melt The Guns". "It's Nearly Africa" brings the sounds of that continent into XTC's quaintly weird world and "Snowman" takes what is well-worn subject matter for a song – a crumbling relationship – and comes at it from an unusual perspective.

English Settlement is a fabulous album but, amazingly, still isn't the high point for XTC but, as an example of the quintessential English band playing the quintessential English eccentrics, it's difficult to beat. –Ian

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