English Settlement (1982)
The edict sent down from on high (from Partridge, of course) was simple: “Why don’t we make an album we don’t have to reproduce on stage?” It’s the kind of logic that most bands hit upon when settling into record album #5, but with English Settlement, it seemed especially notable considering the huge step forward from Black Sea it represented.
Of course, the quartet wasn’t willing to shake off the strictures of rock music entirely. There’s plenty of meat and gristle audible on this album. But there is far more nuance, moments of quiet, and much more texture baked into it as well.
The most noticeable additions are instrumental. Partridge’s best songs are rooted in acoustic guitar work — the flapping opening notes of “Senses Working Overtime,” the rolling strum of the rhythm line to “Yacht Dance” and “All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late).” You can even tell that some tracks were likely gestated on an acoustic but then given over to its electrified cousin (“Jason And The Argonauts” and “Snowman,” especially). Moulding, on the other hand, peppers these sessions with the use of a fretless bass. He has been open about the fact that he wasn’t quite as adept at the instrument as others, and you can hear him wavering between notes on “Yacht Dance” and “Senses.” It didn’t need fixing, though, because that watery unsteadiness gives such a sense of truth to these songs, and emphasized that XTC wanted to add some humanity to their work.
It is when that notion was lost in the proceedings that things fall apart on English. If we’re looking at the original, double LP release, side three feels like an absolute throwaway. That might raise some hackles, but I urge you to go dial up “Melt The Guns” at your earliest convenience. The sentiment of the song is a fine one (especially today), but it is a hiccupping, twitchy disaster, and a waste of Gregory’s glistening guitar leads and Moulding’s minimalist bass work. And things only get more awkward from there. “Leisure,” the ode to the working man, clomps forward like a dying nag; “It’s Nearly Africa” tries for a Fear Of Music-style mashup and threatens cultural insensitivity; and “Knuckle Down” has all the nuance of saying “tsk tsk” to racist acts. Good effort; failed execution.
Again, these might be forgivable offenses if the songs surrounding them weren’t so damn good. “Senses” is perfection itself, building and receding in all the right ways, and threaded through with earworm melodies that helped propel it to the top 10 of the UK singles chart. Partridge tells a great story about the nasty deeds of young men in “No Thugs In Our House,” propelled forward by Gregory’s Cream-y lead guitar and Chambers’ thrusting drums. With his four tracks, Moulding showcases the varying sides of his musical interests: reggae (“English Roundabout”), skittish new wave (“Fly on the Wall”), folksy psychedelia (“Runaways”) and meat and potatoes rock (“Ball & Chain”).
English Settlement also marked the end of another era of XTC. Their attempts to tour in support of this record went down the tubes after Partridge started suffering panic attacks and nervous exhaustion. As a result, the band would very rarely play live, and only for promotional TV appearances. It was also the last full album Terry Chambers would contribute to, deciding to depart the fold during sessions and rehearsals for the next LP. They scraped the ceiling of success (it’s their highest charting album, hitting the #5 position in the UK) and were subsequently upended in that arena by internal issues. As close to a summation of the band’s entire career as you’re likely to find.