XTC in the Press: 2004

96.5 The Buzz, KRBZ-FM
August 16, 2004
The Machine

XTC - "Across This Antheap"

In terms of sheer ability to craft melodies, I put XTC's Andy Partridge below only Lennon/McCartney and Elvis Costello... In some ways, he's the best of both of those worlds... If you're a fan of the gorgeous, sweeping gems the Beatles regularly turned out, you'll be a fan of XTC... And if you're a fan of Elvis Costello's marriage of jerky melodies and razor wit, you'll be a fan of XTC... XTC started out sounding much more like Costello's punky new wave, but as years went on, the scales began to tip more in favor of the lush, pastoral arrangements The Beatles used beginning with Sgt. Pepper's...

You OUGHT to know XTC's "Dear God", at the very least... It's one of those songs that is SO thoroughly good that it can inspire curiosity in the rest of a band's catalogue, because you just KNOW that there's more where that came from... The first XTC song I ever heard was "Mayor of Simpleton", a bit of a hit for them in 1989... But it wasn't until 1992 when they came out with "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" that I'd heard the song that compelled me to spend a whole summer listening to all of their CDs... Maybe because I was already so familiar with "Mayor of Simpleton", I left the purchase of the Oranges & Lemons CD until the end (they've got a good 10 albums out there)... And while I developed miniature love affairs with each album starting with 1979's Drums & Wires, I've wound up returning to this one particular song again and again, giving it its place on this list...

Andy Partridge would've been a good hippie... He's often pleading for love, peace, and an enlightened relationship with Mother Nature... But several times an album, Andy would get downright angry... And this is one of those times, and his passion burns even brighter for it, especially in the context of the rest of what he's got to say...

The whole of "Across This Antheap" is a metaphor that casts humanity as mindless insects, busying ourselves with all manner of construction, destruction, and reproduction, at the expense of a humanity that's ignored but so desperately needed... The intro has Andy crooning over some jazzy guitar chords, with a jazzy trumpet fluttering in and out:

Soldiers, workers, slaves and farmers
Nurses, queens, and drones
Wish they'd leave my head tonight
Let me rest my bones

And then the sound comes slashing in from all angles, in clockwork rhythm... The mechanical groove that percolates throughout the rest of the song is as important to its message as the lyrics are... You've got fuzzed out guitar, cowbells and assorted industrial percussion clanging away, an almost whispered mantra of "Ziggedy zag, just look at 'em", and an array of grunts and shouts from what sounds like a chain gang... This pattern thickens and heightens throughout the entire song, making the listener feel as increasingly anxious and assaulted as the narrator does...

A billion feet sound just like a billion drums
A bed is creaking as the new messiah comes
The cars_are crashing and the bacon is hacked
The coffin's lowered and the lunches get packed
Still segregating 'cause we insects are too proud
Don't matter what color of cat you are, there's no dogs allowed

As you can see, Andy Partridge is one wordy dude... Sometimes he paints his images TOO well, leaving nothing abstract... But the anger and disgust are so overwhelming that he breaks out of it for a couple of lines, as the pounding machinery stops for just a few seconds:

And the screaming sky won't let me sleep
The stars are laughing at us
As we crawl on and on across this antheap

The verses of this song are insanely clever, but it's only in those two lines that Partridge really comes out and tells you how menacing and cruel he finds it all... Usually, he sees nature as something to get closer to, to feel kinship with... But here, he paints it as something threatening and vicious...

Warplanes go over but no wages go round
A sign goes up to say "Hey, we're twin-towned"
The dough is rising but no bread will be baked
The fur is genuine but the orgasm's faked
We're spending millions to learn to speak porpoise
When human loneliness is still a deafening noise

And the screaming sky won't let me sleep
The stars are laughing at us
As we crawl on and on across this antheap

The lyrics to the intro are repeated next, this time with the full band backing... And back into the final verse and chorus, the layers of noise and clatter multiplying...

And all the world's babies are crying still
While all the police cars harmonize with power drills
As jets and kettles form a chord with screeching gulls
Accompanied by truncheons keeping time on human skulls

And the screaming sky won't let me sleep
The stars are laughing at us

As we crawl on and on past lovers who'll leap
On and on past widows who'll weep
On and on no more than skin deep
On and on across this antheap

Andy's vocal on that last chorus is at once urgent, resigned, and defiant... As the chords repeat, he improvises some melodies, and it's one of the few times I've heard an artist tear down the translucent scrim that divides performer and audience... HE is singing to us, and at us... This is what the guy really thinks and feels, and you get the sense that the fact that he's communicating it within a song has become immaterial...

XTC has always been a very hard band to pigeonhole... They can reach pastoral heights that a only a handful of artists can even conceive of, yet they're also very cerebral, sometimes coldly so... They'll write romantic odes to nature, and then turn around and get very realistic and unforgiving about humankind... They'll create lush, impressionistic epiphanies of sound, and then throw a curveball with spikes at you and make their music twitchy and nervous... This has earned them a reputation as one of the "quirkiest" bands ever... Which is probably why I'll always hold a place in my heart for them, because I've been called quirky on more than one occasion, downright weird on many others...

During the summer of '92, I was eighteen years old, and during those couple of months I listened to XTC almost obsessively... Summer's probably the best time of year to go on an XTC binge, maybe the only time... It was a pivotal time for me... I spent a lot of time, for better or worse, revelling in the very process that's probably the overarching XTC theme: the celebration of one's own detailed, subjective perception of the world, both sensual and intellectual... They've even got a song called "Senses Working Overtime", one of their biggest hits... So when they turned their attention to life in the modern world, it figures that their sonic representation of it would fit so snugly with my own perceptions...

When I step back and take a look around, I see the same frivolity and aimless milling around that the narrator of this song sees, and I wonder why the fuck so much time and concern are spent on those things compared to the little spent on real human development... I perceive the interactions between people as largely mechanical exercises, menial tasks to be performed along with doing the laundry, washing the dishes, and balancing the checkbook... Every place, public and private, becomes an assembly plant... And every movement I see blends into the synchronized meshing of gears... The same clanging noise that runs throughout this song... Everything, except for the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars, the trees, the water... Which is why it's so perfect that the two lines where Andy sings about the sky and the stars are the ones where the noise stops, the most human lines...

This song offers no solutions... Nor does it offer resolution or conclusion, fading out to On and on... It does what XTC does best, and that is to be immersed in the subject without actually diving into it, being of the world but not in it... Giving you a sublimely detailed picture for you to breathe in and ingest aesthetically, each its own separate universe... But always from a remote, even detached point... And with the rest of the world behaving much as this song describes, perhaps the only truly organic things left are our own perceptions and imaginations... Perhaps that's the only part of our humanity that can't be assimilated into the antheap...

If you've read much else of what I've written on this site, you probably know where I stand on that... And like XTC, however flowery my language may get, at the core I'm fairly blunt about what I'm saying... However infrequently I return to their music nowadays, I'll always be thankful I discovered them, and I'll always think of my XTC collection on the shelf the way other people think of their prized wine-collection in the cupboard...

Copyright © 2004 Entercom Kansas City, LLC and First MediaWorks - All Rights Reserved
[Thanks to Jason Ulanet]

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12 January 2013