I realize I'm putting my XTC superfan credibility on the line by saying this, but English Settlement has always felt a bit overrated to me.
Others fans can (and will) go on about it. In fact, there's a large contingent that believe the band reached their pinnacle on the album. And while I agree that English Settlement is an admirable piece of work, it's not an XTC album I pull off the shelf very often. I've never really tried to articulate why that is before, but now's a good a time as any.
First, some history: English Settlement found the boys making the most of the artistic and commercial success of Black Sea. They used their new currency to release a double vinyl set (it fits tidily on one CD) featuring a layered acoustic sound. Though daring for a band who had already made the transition from jumpy punk to muscular new wave, following their creative muse paid off. English Settlement nabbed them their highest U.K. album chart appearance yet (#5) and their biggest hit to date (Senses Working Overtime made it all the way to #10).
So with all this going for it, why isn't it one of my faves? First, the positive. Sonically, English Settlement is unassailable. It's a magnificent-sounding record, which is all the more impressive considering the band produced themselves (with Hugh Padgham engineering). And there are some amazing singular songs, three of which were actually released as singles. Senses Working Overtime is an optimistic burst of energy. No Thugs In Our House is about some parents who are oblivious to the fact that their son has joined a gang. And Colin's Ball and Chain concerns the destruction of residential areas in favor of "motorways and office blocks." Had Andy written this song you know he would have found a way to make it about marriage too. All of a Sudden (It's Too Late) and Snowman are also standouts, particularly the latter, a forlorn tale of romantic abuse.
But a large chunk of the tracks on English Settlement are more ideas than they are songs. Andy Partridge's Yacht Dance, Melt the Guns, Leisure, Knuckle Down, Down in the Cockpit, and It's Nearly Africa and Colin Moulding's English Roundabout are all textural, vibey, and loosely structured. In and of itself this isn't bad, but it becomes a problem when you add vague, impressionistic lyrics. Melt the Guns' obvious anti-war message is the exception, but for the most part the lyrics and voice are just another instrument in the song. I don't believe that every song needs to be laden with meaning, but it is a stark contrast to Black Sea's lyrical excellence, where every song was ABOUT something. Also, most of these English Settlement songs are overlong, averaging about 5 minutes each (this showed once and for all that XTC had given up on punk spirit; The Ramones could bang out at least 3 songs in 5 minutes). I could stand two or three songs like this, but half the record? No.
And it didn't have to be that way. Some songs manage to be expansive and keep a focused structure. Colin's opener, Runaways, sneaks up on the listener and remains hypnotic throughout. The same goes for the propulsive Fly on the Wall. Andy's take on the Greek myth Jason and the Argonauts is the album's second-longest song at 6 minutes, but is melodically-rich enough to warrant it.
XTC would never reach the commercial heights of English Settlement again. Not coincidentally, the album would also mark the end of XTC as a traditional pop group. Soon after its release, Andy Partridge would suffer a mental breakdown and vow never to tour again and drummer Terry Chambers would quit the band. And maybe it was for the best. Though popular success would elude them, their highest creative achievements were still to come.
Fave Song: Snowman