The last XTC album, reviewed in 2000. Written in a time when I would wax lyrical about my favourite music for hundreds of words. You have been warned!
Two XTC albums in consecutive years (Three if you include Homespun demo collection — I don’t!)! The last time that happened was in 1984! The last couple of years have been strange for fans of the Swindon duo (viz Andy Partridge & Colin Moulding) – the enforced moratorium on new releases lasted a full seven years whilst in the meantime, bootlegs of demos (for various album projects – one orchestral, one guitar oriented and even a bubblegum concept album!) floated around the fan community and a book, Song Stories featuring write-ups of the new material was published.
The heightened anticipation and expectation appeared to be satisfied as Apple Venus Part I was released last year to almost universal acclaim.
With the promised follow-up, Wasp Star, XTC abandons the orchestral/pastoral conceits of Apple Venus Part I and delves into uninhibited, unabashed guitar pop or in Partridge’s own words – “It’s great to get our hands tangled up in electric guitar strings once again…this record has more hooks than a Long John Silver convention…”
A humourous quip, which may be said in jest but closer to the truth than one, would dare hope. Twelve fabulous gems in a crown of pop glory that only get shinier with each succeeding play.
First significant factor is the telling contribution of Colin Moulding. The tepid songs on Apple Venus Part I (“Frivolous Tonight” and “Fruit Nut”) raised questions about Moulding’s songwriting prowess but glad to report that based on the evidence on Wasp Star, the Colin Moulding XTC fans know and love is still in the saddle.
The folky eccentric “Boarded Up” sounds like an outtake from the Beach Boys’ quirkiest LP, Smiley Smile; “In Another Life” maintains Moulding’s interest in easy listening music – the recurring horn/harmonica riff accentuates the song’s rather quaint concepts – “I’ll be your Burton/You’ll be my Liz” and “Standing In For Joe” (originally intended for the bubblegum pop project), a paean to infidelity, comes across like a latter day Genesis/Steely Dan ditty but works nonetheless.
However, as usual, it is the genius of Andy Partridge that makes XTC what it is – one of the finest pop bands of all time. Whilst the emphasis on Wasp Star appears to have been hooks, hooks and even more hooks, this approach has not been at the expense of Partridge’s familiar word play and wit.
Take for example the thoroughly infectious “I’m The Man Who Murdered Love”, which deserves to be a song played on heavy rotation over the air waves if only to hear lines like – ” He was begging on his bended knee/For me to put him from his misery/He hadn’t worked at all this century/Said ‘I do a service for humanity'” screw up the sensibilities of kids weaned on the blatantly crass sexual imagery of modern day boybands and teen divas.
Giving I’m The Man Who Murdered Love a good run for its money in the sing-a-long stakes:
The bouncy ‘lovers rock’ inflected “My Brown Guitar”; about Partridge’s obsession – “You want some lovely, I got some lovely/In my yard, in my yard/There be inchworm, there be football/There be yardstick stir some lovely/Laying waiting naked for you” – um sex.
The dynamic rhythmically driven “We’re All Light” where Partridge collects a slew of dead-corny ‘pick-up’ lines and delivers it like poetry – ” Don’t you know/’bout a zillion years ago/Some star sneezed, now they’re paging you in reception/Don’t you know/Jack and Jill-ion years ago/Some dinosaur dropped the pail when it saw our reflection,”
The dumb monolithic guitar pattern that is “Stupidly Happy” finds Partridge in dizzy celebratory love mode – ” And if the Devil walks updressed in any disguise/I take him by the collars look him in the eye/I’m stupidly happy/Now you’re my defense/ I’m stupidly happy/It’s all making sense.”
The semi-autobiographical “Playground” portrays childhood as a time where you “never stop rehearsing, rehearsing for the big square world” and shares with us Partridge’s darkest moment – “Some sweet girl, playing my wife, runs off with a boy whose bike she’ll ride.”
The ska-jazz Sting-like “You And the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful” is Partridge’s olive branch to his ex-wife – “We see flying saucers, flying cups, and flying plates/And as we trip down lover’s lane we sometimes bump into the gate/And I know thunder in your head can still reverberate/But no matter what the weather, you and the clouds will still be beautiful.”
Every single one a potential hit single (in a perfect pop world of course)!
Rather astutely though, Partridge manages to leaven the sugar high with well-placed thoughtful passages on his favourite topic – relationships with the fairer (or opposite) sex.
The rather painful dirge-like “Wounded Horse” once again concerns his failed marriage – “Well I bit out my own tongue like a wounded horse/When I found out you’d been riding another man.”
Whilst on the other extreme, Partridge declares his worship of the female of the species in “Church of Women” – “Breathe ’em in until my head goes spinning around,” big sigh everyone!
With Wasp Star, XTC have made up for the prolonged hiatus since Nonsuch (if you consider an album every four years as “normal” frequency) both parts of Apple Venus had been completed without the considerable influence of Dave Gregory.
Certainly the song arrangements have suffered for this, but speaking generally, Gregory’s absence has not proven fatal to the spirit of XTC. This is down mainly to Andy Partridge’s continuing belief in his art.
There may be many “faults” in Wasp Star that detractors may make capital out of but in the circumstances and taking into account what XTC needed to achieve with this album, I would have to say that it is an unqualified success.
… still there’s more …