"This is going to sound pompous and arty," says XTC's Andy Partridge, "but the whole album is a cycle of something: a day or a year, with the seasons, or a life. It's a cycle of starting, aging, dying and starting again." He is referring to Skylarking, the British trio's superb eighth album.
Recorded largely at Todd Rundgren's studio in Woodstock, New York, Skylarking's fourteen songs abound in elemental imagery and music that is pastoral, understated and carefully arranged. The album is a celebration of nature and particularly of summertime.
"The atmosphere of the album is one of a playfully sexual hot summer," says Partridge. "On a hot day, a lot of life is going to be made somewhere, and it's probably gonna be outdoors on grass. It's just about summer and being out in the open and discovering sex in a stumbly, teenage way."
The concept of the album as a song cycle is underscored by musical interludes and incidental sounds between tracks. The songs are related by key, tempo and subject matter. Oddly enough, the thematic framework was not the band's idea but producer Rundgren's. Guitarist Partridge and bass player Colin Moulding, XTC's principal writers, had worked up thirty-five songs, which they sent Rundgren in advance of their arrival in America. He selected fourteen of them, decided on a lineup and instructed the band to be ready to cut them in that order.
"He tended to go for the gentler songs, for songs of a certain atmosphere," says Partridge. "We'd sit down and talk about where the emotion was headed: the emotion, the atmosphere, the heat, the geographic place, the time of day — this journey you're supposed to go through on the whole record."
Partridge's iconoclastic "Dear God" was left off the album at his insistence. Relegated to the B side of a twelve-inch single, "Dear God" generated such an overwhelming response when played on radio that it became XTC's unlikely first hit in America — and was added to later pressings of Skylarking. "I thought I'd failed to précis the largest subject in man's mind, which is man's belief of what the truth is," Partridge says. "How the hell do you condense that into four minutes?"
Skylarking, as it turned out, was the album that broke XTC to a larger audience in America — and it couldn't have come at a more opportune time. "We were at our lowest ebb, moralewise, because we weren't selling any records and it wasn't the LP that Virgin and Geffen wanted made," Partridge says. "They wanted a slick, hard, American rock album: The quote was 'Can you make it somewhere between ZZ Top and the Police?'"
Though subdued and sublime, Skylarking was not an easy album to make. The band members argued with Rundgren and one another; Moulding actually quit at one point, and Partridge repeatedly threatened to fly back to England. Though he didn't like the album initially, Partridge's opinion of Skylarking — and of Rundgren — has softened. "I now see with the benefit of hindsight that it's a fine album and he did some sterling work," says Partridge.