Some bands’ careers resemble the “long tail”—a peak at the beginning, then a steady decline towards the end. Others are a bell curve wherein the group take a couple of albums to build up steam, peak mid-career, then trail off with later releases. The graphic representation of XTC‘s 14 studio albums would be polymorphic. Their 30-year career comprises many incarnations, offshoots, and directions, with peaks and valleys along the way.
One of those high points is XTC’s fifth album, English Settlement, which turns 40 this month. It’s often cited as the band’s best LP, though I like to think of it as the best in the turn-of-the-1980s phase of their career. After their first two releases in 1978, White Music and Go 2, the band coalesced into the classic lineup of Andy Partridge (guitar and vocals), Colin Moulding (bass and vocals), Dave Gregory (guitar and keyboards), and Terry Chambers (drums and percussion). Their third album, 1979’s Drums & Wires, yielded a hit single (“Making Plans for Nigel”), broadening the quartet’s fanbase. The group continued to build momentum with 1980’s Black Sea, on the strength of infectious, literate singles like “Generals and Majors” and “Respectable Street”.
English Settlement represents a turning point for XTC, though it’s hard to say whether the album is the apex of one phase or the start of another. In 1982, they were at a crossroads. Singer and principal songwriter Partridge hated touring, which, by that time, XTC had been doing for nearly a decade. Partridge came to loathe the lifestyle and reasoned that if he wrote songs that were difficult to perform live, it would relieve him of the obligation. As he told an interviewer in 2012, “I got it into my head that if I wrote an album with a sound less geared towards touring, then maybe there would be less pressure to tour.”
Unfortunately for Partridge, the band’s label, Virgin Records, sent them back out on the road to support the record. They played ever-larger venues, doing two tours in 1981 as openers for the Police. By 1982 XTC were poised to conquer America. Their first US tour as headliners ended abruptly when Partridge became physically unable to take the stage for a sold-out show at the Hollywood Palladium. (A more lengthy account of what PopMatters’ writer Patrick Schabe refers to as “The Incident” can be found here.)
So while English Settlement marked the end of the band’s performing era, the songs that came out of Partridge’s aversion to touring signal a new direction. The album’s sound is also a product of some shiny new toys. Partridge got a new guitar, Moulding picked up a fretless bass, Gregory bought a Rickenbacker 12-string, and Chambers added Rototoms and a drum synthesizer to his kit. With Hugh Padgham behind the board, the result is a lush and layered recording that Partridge described as “multicolored and widescreen.”
If the English landscape inspired the album title and artwork (a depiction of the Uffington White Horse outside the band’s native Swindon), British politics are front and center in the lyrics. “Ball and Chain”, written by Moulding, rages against unchecked development and the disregard for rural villages in the Thatcher era. Its ebullient chorus is at odds with this sentiment, but a wistful instrumental interlude brings it back on topic.
“English Roundabout”, another Moulding composition, mimics the helter-skelter of modern life with its frenetic ska beat. Chambers’ drumming is superb here, and the rest of the band is so tight you hardly notice it’s in 5/4 time. The odd time signature contributes to the off-kilter feeling of a world moving too fast.
Another song about sensory overload is the sublime “Senses Working Overtime”. Penned by Partridge, it was the album’s best-selling single and one of XTC’s finest moments. It sounds nothing like a hit record at first, with its medieval verse and Moulding’ elastic bass. But once the pre-chorus kicks in, then literally counts up to the refrain, the song gels into 4:50 of pop perfection. The tune is longer than the average single at nearly five minutes, but not a second is superfluous. One of the many ingenious bits of production that makes this track a stunner is the vocal echo on the second instance of “kick in space”. It’s a small touch, but the song would be slightly less great without it.
A few of the overtly political songs sound somewhat naive today. Perhaps that’s not the fault of the songs but the fact their topics are not only still present, but in most cases, worse. “No Thugs in Our House” speaks to the rising fascist movement among British youth in a clever and catchy way. “Melt the Guns” is less successful as an indictment of America’s culture of violence. The track is overly long, and the simian backing vocals don’t do it any favors. “It’s Nearly Africa”, according to Partridge, is about wanting to return to an Edenic, pre-technology world. He claims the song is not really about Africa but about a utopian innocence. I can’t hear the line “Any day now / It’s nearly Africa” as anything but a cautionary refrain. Even if that wasn’t Partridge’s intent, the lyric is problematic either way.
On the other hand, some of the more personal songs are remarkably mature, like “Yacht Dance” and (All of A Sudden) It’s Too Late”. And let me tell you, “It’s too late / In all your hurry / You accidentally locked the gate” hits different 40 years on.
The album was released in the UK as a 15-song double LP. The US pressing was a single record, depriving Stateside fans of five songs. It’s hard to incorporate the other five after listening to the ten songs on the US vinyl for all these years. “Yacht Dance” is the best of them, and I’ll keep “Leisure”. But I don’t think I missed out by not hearing” Knuckle Down”, “Fly on the Wall”, or the cringe-y gender commentary of “Down in the Cockpit”.
Partridge and Moulding’s singing matured on English Settlement, as did their musicianship. Partridge, in particular, sounds more confident in his natural voice, rather than affecting the punk histrionics of earlier albums. Both singers use their voices as supplementary instruments to creative and delightful effect throughout.
Chambers, to my ear, is the heart and soul of this album. Drummers, in general, get short shrift, and with the exception of only a few big names, are relegated to the back of the band, literally and figuratively. Chambers’ drumming is top-notch, from the deft sticking on the complex rhythms of “English Roundabout”, to the ticking time bomb of “Melt the Guns”. He manages to be muscular but never overbearing on “Ball and Chain”. Despite its six-minute runtime, his inventive beat on “Jason and the Argonauts” propels the song and keeps it from feeling too long. On “Senses Working Overtime”, he really shines, from the hand drumming in the verses to the perfectly-placed, creative patterns. The triplet fill on the last chorus is one of the most joyous moments on the whole album.
We’ll never know what might have happened had XTC completed that US tour in 1982. They could have become as big as their contemporaries U2, the Police, R.E.M., and others. Or they could have burned out, locked into a cycle of rushed albums and more touring. After English Settlement, they embarked on a new phase of their career. Being a studio-only band allowed them to experiment freely, pushing the boundaries of what a pop group could be. They continued to mix polyrhythms, pastoral guitars, and cerebral social commentary, all while crafting accessible pop. XTC’s career took many roundabout turns and weathered a few peaks and valleys, but they never stood still. As a result, they remain one of the most influential and underrated bands of their time.