Monday, June 07, 2010

271. XTC: The Big Express (1984)

After the commercial letdown of Mummer, the boys in XTC swung for the fences on The Big Express. That album title isn't incidental. The album has a BIG sound. Mummer sounded like the work of a group bound to the studio. Though XTC's no-touring stance had not (and would not) change, The Big Express sounds like a set of songs made to be played in enormous open-air arenas.

And of course this is still XTC, so the songs, for all their bluster, are still idiosyncratic and quirky.

Colin Moulding gives us an arresting opener, the single Wake Up. Lyrically it's somewhat obtuse, with two verses about the work day, a final one about the scene of an accident (supposedly a recurring dream for Colin), and a chorus that's basically the title phrase delivered from a whisper to a shout. The guitars clang, the words come at a rapid pace, and a heavenly choir wraps things up. Colin's only other song, I Remember the Sun, is quieter and less assuming. It's a collection of hazy childhood nostalgia set in a jazzy form.

Andy's songs on The Big Express cover a wide range of emotions and styles. Single All You Pretty Girls is a lustful, singalong sea shanty. (The Everyday Story of) Smalltown sets vignettes of daily life and a staunch anti-urban sprawl message ("If it's all the same to you / Mrs. Progress / Think I'll drink my Oxo up / And get away / It's not that you're repulsive to see / In your brand new catalogue nylon nightie / You're too fast for little old me / Next you'll be telling me it's 1990") to wide-open pop songwriting. Andy also gets personal, taking on the temptation to cheat on his wife (the sporadically amelodic Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her; Andy did end up cheating, and marrying the other woman) and crooked managers (the scathing I Bought Myself a Liarbird).

But he does his best work when writing about he ravages of war, which he does twice on The Big Express. The first, Reign of Blows (Vote No Violence), is musically forceful but lyrically elegant. It's also sadly still applicable 26 years on. Witness lines like "So torture raises its head / Decked out in blue, white, and red" and "When death draws up in his car / And talks in terrorist tones / Remember violence is only a vote for the / Black Queen to take back the throne."

The second is definitely the band's finest achievement up to this point, and maybe ever. It's called This World Over, and it imagines a the aftermath of nuclear war through the eyes of a father surveying the wasted landscape with his mutated children who know nothing of the world before. Answering their questions, he lays blame squarely on an overzealous world leader with a "famous face" (a.k.a. Ronald Reagan) and his iffy motivations. I get chills at this bit, every time:
"Will you tell them about that far off and mythical land
And how a child to the virgin came?
Will you tell them that the reason why we murdered
Everything upon the surface of the world
So we can stand right up and say we did it in his name?"
Musically, it's minor key and melancholy, wisely letting focus stay on the lyrics.

Unfortunately, as wondrous as that song is, The Big Express also contains prime examples of Partridge at his most over-the-top. The psycho-county of Shake You Donkey Up and the chugging Train Running Low on Soul Coal both feature Partridge at his least restrained and most annoying. Neither is an especially awful song, but anyone who doesn't like XTC could definitely use them as compelling evidence.

Overall though, The Big Express is another fascinating album in a catalog full of them. But the boys' next move would prove to be even more audacious, surprising, and innovative.

Grade: B
Fave Song: This World Over

1 comment:

Euncle E said...

This is the ONE XTC album I am sorry to say I'm not familiar with. I must remedy this right away, but until I do I will suspend my XTC fan club card...Thanks for this.