Styles: '80s experimental pop, psychedelic pop
Others: Dukes of the Stratosphere, The Beach Boys
When I first bought and listened to Skylarking, the pseudo-word "ehh" seeped from my lips, and I was pretty upset that I didn't choose to purchase another CD in its place. Maybe it was my tastes at the time, maybe it was my age, or perhaps it's just that Skylarking takes a while to sink in. It's unobtrusive like that. It doesn't come in and immediately spin your paradigm around. Rather, it grows on you at a slow, steady pace until one day a poignant question enters your mind; "How did I every live without this?" At that point, you'll understand why whenever I hear the opening crickets, birds, and synth line of "Summer's Cauldron," I know exactly what I'm going to do for the next 45 minutes (hint: it involves a stereo and this CD).
Skylarking has that kind of addiction laced into it. Amidst its heavily layered, lush pop songs (complete with tight vocal harmonies a la Beach Boys) is something amazing that I've never quite been able to pinpoint. This is a pop album, yet it is so much more at the same time. XTC is said to have emerged from the punk and new-wave scene, but this isn't new-wave pop-punk either. There are subtle ambient nuances around every corner to embellish the already fantastical, catchy melodies, and the smart, varied instrumentation that is missing on the majority of recent pop releases. Those crickets, for instance, at the beginning of "Summer's Cauldron," yeah, they last through the whole song.
But it's not just the subtleties and experimentation that make Skylarking so great. It's everything, really. The lyrics are intelligent and sung with an innocent conviction that can give you chills, the chord progressions are pop perfection, and the flow of the album is brilliant (if you get the right version* anyways); the closing songs are perhaps the most fruitful of Skylarking's offerings. It's not necessarily that they're any better than the rest of the record, but they're what everything has been building up to: the journey, the confrontation, the moment of truth, and the bonfire.
Only a number of months ago I wouldn't have held my tongue to say that no major label pop album has topped Skylarking since it's release. Only Brian Wilson's SMiLE has rendered that statement false; but hey, that one took a good 35 years to make.
*Version Note: "Dear God" was originally the b-side of "Grass," and absent from the first pressing. Instead, the first pressing included the song "Mermaid Smiled" between "Another Satellite" and "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul." When "Dear God" became a hit, Virgin cut "Mermaid Smiled" and added "Dear God." An import version contains both "Mermaid Smiled" and "Dear God." The former sits nicely in its initial placement, while "Dear God" is thrown after "Sacrificial Bonfire," effectively butchering the flow of the album. As someone who fell for the "more songs is better" trap (the import is easy to find cheap on eBay), trust me, "Mermaid Smiled" isn't worth it.
1. Summer's Cauldron
3. The Meeting Place
4. That's Really Super, Supergirl
5. Ballet for a Rainy Day
6. 1000 Umbrellas
7. Season Cycle
8. Earn Enough for Us
9. Big Day
10. Another Satellite
11. The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul
12. Dear God
14. Sacrificial Bonfire