Elegant XTC

Andy Partridge makes a new album and loses a bandmate in the process

By Greg Kot
Chicago Metromix
Week of March 19, 1999

XTC is the vital link between the songcraft of the Beatles and the '90s Brit-pop of Blur, Suede and Oasis, but for the last seven years the famously reclusive band had all but disappeared. Since the release of "Nonsuch" in 1992, nasty divorces from wives, record companies and band members derailed recording, and the band hasn't performed live since the early '80s. And then, last month, came "Apple Venus Vol. 1" (TVT), an album of elegantly orchestrated folk-pop songs that marks a daring departure from the edgy guitar-centric territory of XTC's past.

The shift in emphasis was too much for guitarist Dave Gregory, who quit the band after accusing songwriter Andy Partridge of essentially making a solo album. Indeed, "Apple Venus" is largely Partridge's baby, with a couple of songwriting contributions from bassist Colin Moulding. But it's hardly a letdown. Rather, like much of the band's best work, it's grounded in classic pop melodies, and includes a couple of terrific additions to the XTC canon: the suite-like "Easter Theatre," the bilious "Your Dictionary" and the bittersweet "The Last Balloon." In a recent interview, Partridge described how "Apple" grew.

Did you feel it was a risky move reintroducing yourself to your fans with this kind of album?

I didn't feel it was. Dave Gregory was not happy making an acoustic-orchestral album -- he said it was commercial suicide. But I feel the album contains some of the best material I've ever written, which got me through the deep freeze of the last seven years.

But this does feel more like a Partridge-with-strings album than the earlier work. Do you feel there is a certain brand name with XTC that you wanted to keep, as opposed to making a solo album like Dave suggested?

Absolutely. This is no more a solo record than any of the others have been. Which means I bring my songs, and I like my songs to go how I like them to go and people chip in ideas, and if they're good ideas we use them. XTC is like A.1. steak sauce -- actually, we should aim higher than that, and say it's like a Rolls-Royce -- it's a brand name of a certain quality.

But in the best bands, there is a system of checks and balances, where the other guys can tell the songwriter, "Hey, this isn't up to par." Does that kind of system exist within the incredible shrinking XTC?

The fellow who writes the songs pretty much knows how the stage set needs to go. You have a few vague foggy bits and you describe to people what you're after, or you play them a demo -- and I have to say my demos have gotten more finished as the years go on, which is dangerous, because it does start to preclude other people. But it's also a challenge -- if someone is inspired or provoked by the demo to come up with a better idea, then I have no problem using it. I'll do whatever makes the song better. It doesn't have to do with my ego. But I do have pretty set ideas, Colin less so. He likes to experiment and fish around a little more. I am more like "der little vatchmaker." I like to get all the parts as synchronous as I can. The song for me is like a little mechanical toy -- if it's not all put together right, it's not going to pop up and surprise you.

How did "Your Dictionary" end up on the album? I heard Colin and (producer) Haydn Bendall insisted that it be included, over your objections.

"Your Dictionary" was an exercise in releasing some venom for my own sake. At one point, I felt extremely hurt, being thrown out of a relationship against my will. But as the years went on, time mended things, and I didn't feel that way anymore. But I played the demos, and the bastards (laughs) all pointed to that song. I may not be the best judge of everything I bring in, but I still feel tacky about it, because I realize it's going to hurt when she hears it.

But it's a great song. It reminds me of you objecting to the inclusion of "Dear God" on the "Skylarking" album.

With that song, I thought I failed. Human belief is such a fantastic subject, there have been volumes written about it, and I tried to do it in three verses -- what a pompous little (fool) I was. That's why I didn't want it on the album. But it came out as a B side, and it started getting played on the radio, and as a commercial decision it made sense to put the song on later pressings of the album. But as an aesthetic decision, I still think I failed to do what I set out to do, in terms of playing with the last remnants of my belief/nonbelief in a greater one.

Your label just put out a boxed set of early XTC material. In the decade-plus since then, how has your songwriting changed?

I never thought I had much in the way of melodies back then, and with my lyrics, it was like loading a shotgun full of modern phrases and blasting them out, like Jackson Pollock. I can see myself in those songs, but it's more like a flower sees the seed. I think I've blossomed out quite a bit more as a songwriter. One part of me has died off -- the part of me that wants to get up and perform -- but the desire to get into deeper and deeper songwriter seems to increase by the day.

Kot is the Chicago Tribune rock critic.

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[Thanks to Joel Flaxman]