Everything great about 1979′s Drums and Wires gets bigger and brighter on 1980′s Black Sea. XTC had evolved into a vivid and invigorating live band, and it shows on their first successful record in theU.S.; the four members play together as one, even as star New Wave producer Steve Lillywhite studio-hones their wallop. Having scored their first substantial U.K. pop success the year before with bassist Colin Moulding’s “Making Plans for Nigel,” XTC’s confidence substantially increases, along with their ambition. As that single confirmed, social commentary routinely found a place on England’s late-’70s/early-’80s hit parade, and both Moulding and leader Andy Partridge contribute several smart ones here. Partridge’s opening “Respectable Street” in particular evokes the Kinks’ at their peak and presages Blur’s Brit-pop best, even if the BBC wouldn’t touch its references to abortion and sex positions.
Moulding’s “Nigel” success may have inspired some competition in Partridge, who contributes his most politically inspired lyrics (“Living Through Another Cuba”) as well as his most upbeat testimonials (“Burning with Optimism’s Flames”). The biggest hit was Partridge’s least favorite of his songs, “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me),” in which an anxious teen turns to comic books (or maybe even rock ‘n’ roll) to give him the confidence he lacks with girls. Although the original LP ended with the band’s most abrasive track (the Joy Division-ish “Travels in Nihilon”), Black Sea is XTC’s most immediate and New Wave-iest disc. Nearly every cut sounds like a hit from a time when crunchy but perceptive rock was potential (if not always actual) pop.