Before working on XTC’s much-loved 1982 double album, leader Andy Partridge gave away his acoustic guitar in a TV contest. He wrote a batch of songs on a new one, and its presence freed up sonic space to fill in ways the band hadn’t yet attempted. English Settlement was the first XTC album to ignore the parameters of what a four-member band can accomplish onstage, and it was recorded while the quartet was still a live band. But when it came time to tour it, Andy Partridge’s wife tossed away the Valium to which the singer had long been addicted. The sudden withdrawal triggered panic attacks, a nervous breakdown, and the end of XTC as a touring ensemble.
Where there were once jagged post-punk riffs, there are acoustic, 12-string, Rickenbacker and fretless bass guitar intricacies. The result is cleaner, more spacious and dynamic: XTC’s sole Top 10 U.K. single “Senses Working Overtime” starts out quiet, builds with some Who-like flourishes, and then explodes into the first of the band’s many Beatle-y choruses. The tension that aligned XTC with contemporaries like Talking Heads dissipates as the group strengthens its bond to Brit-pop’s past. Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding still write social commentary songs (“Ball and Chain,” “Melt the Guns,” “It’s Nearly Africa”), but with a gentler touch. English Settlement is XTC’s most timeless album; its hooky songwriting is still very much New Wave, but less direct, more finessed sounds position it some heavenly world above.