Six Degrees of XTC’s Skylarking

Austin L. Ray

By Austin L. Ray

on 04.27.12 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album



Unlike many of XTC's other albums (Drums & Wires, The English Settlement, Black Sea), Skylarking doesn't evoke easy comparisons to new-wave/post-punk compatriots (Talking Heads, B-52s, The Cars,) like so much low-hanging referential fruit. Perhaps that's why it stands as the tallest member of a catalog with several very real highlights, even with 25 years' worth of time to pick it apart. Eschewing the jittery, bounce 'n' roll of the band's late-'70s material, Skylarking opts instead for pop pomposity and all the big melodies, elegant arrangements and witty lyrics that brings with it.

"Psychedelic" is a word often employed to describe Skylarking — notable critics from Rolling Stone and Pitchfork hailed the album as "the most accomplished neo-psychedelic LP to date" and a "beacon of psychedelic greenery," respectively. But this is psych-rock more in step with The Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society or The Zombies' Odessey and Oracle than Nuggets or, say, Jefferson Airplane's Surrealstic Pillow. All of which is to say that it's quintessential, whimsical pop music, complete with Big Ideas and dark edges.

With topics covering marriage ("Big Day"), theism ("Dear God"), public sex ("Grass") and providing for a family ("Earn Enough for Us"), Skylarking is ambitious, no doubt, but it's also lush, thank in part to Todd Rundgren's production, which Andy Partridge has since insulted and complimented in pretty much equal parts. Maybe it was the heady subjects, or Rundgren's apparent insistence that the songs form a narrative, but the discomfort resulted in a pinnacle XTC hadn't hit previously and would never hit again. An imperfect but nonetheless stunning long player, Skylarking received perhaps its best front-cover-sticker-blurb from the self-proclaimed Dean of American Rock Critics himself, Robert Christgau: "Imagine Sgt. Pepper if McCartney hadn't needed Lennon...and you'll get an inkling of what these insular popsters have damn near pulled off."

The Change of Pace

Surf's Up

Beach Boys

The parallels between Surf's Up and Skylarking are numerous. Each album was made by a notable pop band well into its career (XTC's eight studio album, The Beach Boys 17th!); each found a group attempting to expand its sound both through songwriting (darker themes and/or political overtones) and personnel (Rundgren producing XTC, Jack Rieley managing the Beach Boys); and both albums, while receiving critical praise upon release, have aged well, piling up accolades in the year's since. If Drums & Wires is XTC's Pet Sounds, Skylarking is its Surf's Up.

The One-Hit Wonder


While it's fair to say that, more often than not, one-hit wonders fall by the wayside due to lack of subsequent quality material, it should come as no surprise to any pop lover that many flashes in the pan do indeed possess both rewarding catalogues (see: Devo, Flaming Lips, Dexys Midnight Runners, etc.) and real songwriting chops. Real talk, though: If you only know Squeeze for "Tempted" (which, of course, is included in this set), take a stroll through the other 11 selections included here, because they are a) often excellent, b) stylistically varied, and c) not as cheesy as "Tempted." Same goes for anyone who knows XTC for "Senses Working Overtime," "Making Plans for Nigel" or any of the band's other highest-charting singles. Skylarking is a different beast entirely.

The Drama Major

Sheer Heart Attack


In late 1974, Queen took a step away from the prog/mysticism/folklore of their first couple records; they "reeled in the prog, upped the pop, and pushed its magpie ways to a higher level of willfulness," as Barry Walters says in his eMusic review. Front and center, of course, is Freddie Mercury, his piano featured more prominently on Sheer Heart Attack, and his flair for the dramatic allowed to run wild, albeit within the constraints of pop perfection, the best example of which is the awe-inspiring "Killer Queen."

The Potential-Fulfiller

Just a few months before Natalie Portman would utter a phrase that would alter the way lazy writers introduced the band for years to come, The Shins released their most accomplished album. While Zach Braff's game-changing (for this band, anyway) movie had yet to drop, James Mercer and his crew had to know what was coming, which makes this song cycle that much more impressive. Chutes Too Narrow is simultaneously a promise kept and potential fulfilled, its songs masking pain in brilliant melody, its heartbreak semi-convincingly covered up by ecstatic exaltations and handclaps. They may not have actually changed lives, but for a half hour or so, you'd be hard-pressed to argue otherwise.

The Punks

Like XTC, Irish rockers The Undertones sang about relatable topics like the joy — and despair — surrounding the opposite sex ("Teenage Kicks," "Girls Don't Like It") and the anticipation of change ("Here Comes the Summer"), without sacrificing a sense of humor in the process ("Male Model"). Also like their brothers located 400 miles east of them (with an Irish Sea in the middle), The Undertones prioritized the hooks, even if theirs often ended up on the punk-inclined end of the pop spectrum.