So, as an album, Skylarking is beautiful and whole and just shy of perfection enough that it doesn't come off as too clean.
Yes, another XTC album. Big shock. If you've read any of my previous reviews of the band's releases at this site then you know they're my favorite band. If this were a "ten albums on a desert island" list, then you could fully expect to see one or two (or more) XTC albums on that list. But it's not. It's an "all-time favorite" list. Which is a beast of an entirely different species. So why this album in particular?
I suppose it comes back to the whole reason for something being a "favorite album of all time". I could give a list of reasons that XTC is my favorite band, but most of those reasons have to do with their work as a whole, an opus of composition that spans decades. Instead, I have to justify to you (and myself), the choice of Skylarking over many of their other great albums. My first love will always be Oranges and Lemons, as that's the album that introduced me to the band and gave me faith in rock and pop, and I'll always see albums like Black Sea, English Settlement, Nonsuch, and the Apple Venus albums as great achievements worthy of any band. But Skylarking stands just that half-inch over the rest, for a variety of reasons.
First and foremost, Skylarking works incredibly well, almost too-obviously-well, as a whole album. In spite of the semi-legendary fights between the album's producer, Todd Rundgren, and XTC frontman Andy Partridge, Rundgren's controlling hand reigned in XTC's somewhat far-reaching ambitions and helped sequence Skylarking into the closest thing that XTC have released to the much-vaunted "concept album". Operating more as a song-cycle, Skylarking begins with the chirping, dawn-light birds of "Summer's Cauldron" and end with the crackling, midnight bonfire of "Sacrificial Bonfire", signaling the completion of a day, and that day can be stretched to an allegory of a life. In that respect, the entire experience of the album speaks to the listener as one piece.
But beyond that, Skylarking marks the instant where one of the most creative and talented groups of songwriters and musicians hit their stride and blossomed into full maturity. If the albums preceding Skylarking can be said to have contained a good deal of genius and some moments of brilliance, everything after was virtually seminal. And it was here, in the mid-point of their career, a decade after they emerged incongruously in the punk scene, that their combination of English pastoral leanings merged with a full nod to their Beatles and Beach Boys influences. Freed somewhat by their psychedelic Dukes of Stratosphear side-project, XTC finally embraced the pure-pop direction that they'd already been headed towards.
So, as an album, Skylarking is beautiful and whole and just shy of perfection enough that it doesn't come off as too clean. But, as with any album, it must sustain itself on the strength of its songs. This record also marks one of the most balanced collaborations between Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding, with Moulding penning more than his usual number of tracks, and each of which competes in its subtlety with Partridge's more boisterous tunes. "Grass", "The Meeting Place", and, most especially, "Dying" and "Sacrificial Bonfire", are glimpses into Moulding's particular vision of grandeur in quietude. Partridge's tracks are obvious standouts as well. From the brash and sassy "That's Really Super, Supergirl" to the beautiful misery of "1000 Umbrellas" to the adult introspection of the jazzy "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul", Partridge runs the gamut of human relationships. The crowning achievement here, however, may be the absolutely perfect "Season Cycle". A player that draws on Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's yet manages to sound wholly Partridge's own, the song manages to draw in the listener into a moment of blissful pop perfection. Loaded with the clever wordplay and imagery for which Partridge is famous, this song matches his lofty ambitions in ways that few of his other best tracks did or have. Although he would show an adept ability to toss gems such as this out with seeming ease for the remainder of the band's career, "Season Cycle" stands as one of the best things he's ever written.
Frankly, this is one of the best albums, period. I don't even have to weigh in on the debate over "Dear God" versus "Mermaid Smiled" (the latter was removed from later pressings to make room for the former, which, originally a B-side, actually became one of XTC's only true US "hits"). It doesn't matter which version you have, because both songs are worthy of the album. In Skylarking, pop and rock may have their most perfect impressionistic painting of a sunny English summer's day. They also have a collection of songs that indelibly marked the career of one of their great acts. And it also happens to be the best album by my favorite band in the world.