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.”