Skylarking by XTC has been a favourite album of mine since I first heard it about thirteen years ago, and is the closest thing to a perfect album XTC ever made.
While it’s often described as a psychedelic album (and XTC were certainly in a psychedelic mood at the time, as the two Dukes Of Stratosphear records made either side of this one show), this owes less even to the psych-pop of Syd Barret or Roy Wood than to the pastoral pop of the same time — Odessey & Oracle by the Zombies, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, Turtle Soup — and is the point where Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding’s songwriting styles gelled the best.
It’s really a three-man collaboration, but the three men aren’t the three members of XTC (Moulding, Partridge and guitarist/keyboardist Dave Gregory), but rather Moulding, Partridge and producer Todd Rundgren. Rundgren took the demos that Moulding and Partridge had made of their songs (having asked to have tapes of literally everything they had, even half-finished noodling), selected the songs and radically restructured them, chopping out verses to make the songs punchier, and sequenced the album, before even meeting the band.
And Rundgren’s shaping of the material was a miraculously transformative one. I’ve always far preferred Andy Partridge’s songs on this album (which are mostly witty metaphors, extended to ludicrous degrees in an almost John Donne like way, with every possible aspect of the metaphor examined with a near-mechanical precision, but with beautiful pop melodies), but the placement of Moulding’s songs (continuing the almost dreamlike, elemental, themes of his work on Mummer) turns them into key parts of the album.
Rundgren’s sequencing pulls songs as disparate as “Beatnik existential spy movie soundtrack” The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul and That’s Really Super, Supergirl (a catchy pop song about “Supergirl’s emo boyfriend”, as Holly put it) together into a sequence that manages to tell a coherent story on a number of levels — it tells the story of a life, from youth to death (and then rebirth in Moulding’s Wicker Man-esque Sacrificial Bonfire), of a summer’s day, of the four seasons, and of the four elements. While Partridge has talked of the influence of the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile (especially on the lovely Season Cycle, a song which actually reminds me more of My World Fell Down by Sagittarius), this sequence is remarkably reminiscent of Smile.
Were it not for the incongruous presence of the bludgeoning, facile, New Atheist anthem Dear God, originally a non-album B-side but included on later versions of the album after it became an unexpected hit, it would be close to perfect.
While the band didn’t get on at all with Rundgren on a personal level, they all agreed that his sequencing and arrangement was extraordinarily good. They were less keen, however, on his general sloppiness in the studio, and he often aggravated the perfectionist Partridge by getting them to stop after one or two takes because it was “good enough”, or by playing sloppy two-finger keyboard lines (in the case of That’s Really Super, Supergirl, Rundgren actually got the chords wrong while playing the keyboard parts that are the bedrock of the album).
When the album came out, it sounded thin to the band, and they put this down to Rundgren’s sloppy attitude to the engineering side of production (while eventually singing his praises when it came to the arrangement side of things). But then in 2010 Andy Partridge’s APE Records decided to put out a new audiophile vinyl release of the album, taken directly from the original analogue masters, mastered on two discs at 45RPM for better sound quality, and all that stuff. While doing this, the engineer in charge noticed that there was a polarity reversal problem on the master, and fixed this for the vinyl release.
Now, I’d just assumed that this was a thing for people with dog ears (and not even all of them — the thread about this on an audiophile board, where I looked to see what difference this might make, goes to 22 pages mostly arguing over whether there even is a difference when polarity is reversed), and since my hearing is not great and I don’t have very good stereo equipment (and indeed do 90% of my music listening on the computer), I didn’t want to buy an overpriced audiophile edition for what may be no difference. It seemed to me that this might be on the same level as the people who really argue that the quality of an ethernet cable can affect sound quality (which is scientifically absurd).
However, recently the “corrected polarity” master was issued on CD (in the original intended cover, with daisies threaded through the pubic hair of a woman on the front and of a man on the back, so possibly not something to ask your elderly mother-in-law to buy you for Xmas, as I nearly did), and my friend Chris Browning, who isn’t especially audiophilic, raved about the quality of the new CD, so I picked it up.
My first thought (even when listening on a laptop with cheap earbuds) was “Wow! Colin Moulding actually played on this album!” — the bass is so much more audible that for the first time it actually sounds like an integral part of the recording. The stereo spectrum seems wider, the percussion more resonant, and the various effects on the vocals stand out more.
The album sounds, in general, clearer, and the individual elements are much, much easier to pick out, but in particular all those bits where percussion pans across the stereo spectrum become truly spectacular sounding.
I have no idea how much of this is down to the polarity change, and how much to other things. Doing an A-B comparison with the older CD release shows that the new master is much less compressed (a nice change itself in these days of brickwallking), and obviously the EQ is different. So how much of the difference I’m hearing is the polarity, how much the compression, how much the EQ and other aspects of remastering, how much going back to the original tapes, and how much me just hearing what I want to hear, I don’t know.
And I would emphasise that this is not a remix — it’s a remastering. The balance of the instruments hasn’t changed, and the music is still the same music (apart from the end of Dear God, here placed after The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul and crossfaded with the beginning of Dying, as on the US releases in the 80s, rather than at the end as a bonus track, as on the previous CD release — an improvement, if it had to be on the CD at all, as Dying and Sacrificial Bonfire are clearly the proper ending to the album). But it sounds, to my ears at least, like such an improvement that I can’t see myself ever listening to the old version again.
If you already know and love the album, you owe it to yourself to upgrade to this version. If you don’t, then buy the album, and make sure you get this version when you do (the old version, with the blue-green cover, is still available on Virgin records; you want the brown cover version from APE).
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