Split Like Light Refracted
Psychedelic pswag: a promotional cube for Oranges and Lemons.
September 22, 2005
The iTunes 180! XTC's "The Mayor of Simpleton"

Can a rock band be too perfect? Lyrics too smart? Hooks too sweet?

It's the only explanation I can come up with for the relative lack of success enjoyed by Britain's legendary XTC. In a perfect world, there would have been an unbroken line of pop-rock joy linking Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison in '59 to the Beatles in '69 to Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen in '79 to XTC and the Cure in '89. Hey, it almost... happened... wait, where's XTC? Everybody else is here! XTC? XTC? Where are you?

Part of it they did to themselves: Andy Partridge's debilitating (life-threatening, actually) stage fright caused the band to stop performing live in 1982, denying them one of the important avenues to success in the US. And it's unclear that it would have mattered anyway, as Partridge's lyrics in general and bone-dry wit in particular are so British they make Paul McCartney sound like a farmboy from Des Moines. Fans who could get by these issues still had to contend with the fact that although Partridge the singer was not overtly self-indulgent, Partridge the songwriter is absolutely so; while he wouldn't know how to write inaccessible music, he certainly doesn't feel compelled to follow anyone else's vision of perfect rock and roll.

As a result, sometimes XTC just doesn't know when enough is enough. It would have been enough to simply employ their alter-ego Dukes of Stratosphear personae to pay homage to '60s psychedelia, but an EP and an LP weren't enough for Partridge & Co., and they returned to the XTC nameplate for still one more psych-pop album in Oranges and Lemons - one album too many, as it turned out.

But there is one glorious, magical turn on Oranges that is as fine a song as Partridge ever wrote, which is to say nearly as fine a pop song as anybody ever wrote. "The Mayor of Simpleton" was the biggest hit XTC had in the US for all the right reasons: it's witty, it's unbelievably listenable, and it's a sweet, sweet love song (and, happily, nothing more!) to boot.

Rather than attempt to describe the song myself, here I must bow to the incredible OCD of the writer who put the "anal" into "analyzed" with a review-cum-novella of XTC and "Simpleton;" it makes my rants look like fortune cookie material (the entire review can be found here; scroll down a [bit] to find it, and trust me, you'll know when you have). I will, however, simply note that it's interesting how similar it is musically to another tremendous song from that year, Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney's "Veronica." Yet one will never be confused for the other: "Veronica" is Tennyson the storyteller while "Simpleton" is Browning the lover - and that's the variety great art should have.

Hopefully one day Andy Partridge will be mentioned with those great artists as he rightly should. World, please: be upstanding for "the Mayor of Simpleton."

Sunday, April 16, 2006
Reason #152 not to abandon the long-playing format: Nonsuch

We've already detailed the heartbreak of XTC's failure to take music that just makes you glad to be alive (which they made) and translate it into worldwide success (which they made more difficult than it should have been). So it's especially bittersweet that they made a nearly perfect album in Nonsuch - you're happy you know about it, but sad that more people don't.

Probably the most frustrating thing about Nonsuch is that it wasn't totally ignored in the US: “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead,” with its Christ-figure imagery (others might be reminded of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land), received fairly heavy rotation on MTV and hit #1 on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart. But the album itself barely cracked the top 100.

What makes this downright maddening is the knowledge that taken as a whole, the album just might be the most comprehensive statement of the pop-rock form, certainly the most comprehensive since Klaatu's 3:47 EST (and twice as long to boot).

Songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding pay sonic nods to a stunning array of pop touchstones: “Wrapped in Grey” is a paean to the Burt Bacharach waltz, while “Crocodile” reminds of the more boyish John Lennon and Moulding's “Bungalow” of the early Jeff Lynne. “Dear Madam Barnum” bounces along like the Hollies' “Carrie-Anne,” and “Then She Appeared” jangles merrily like a cross between Martin Newell and David Byrne, taking the best of both and fusing them with Partridge's stellar sense of just when to resolve chord tension. “My Bird Performs” has a strong Robyn Hitchcock vibe, and “The Smartest Monkeys” employs the laconic feel and slapback echoes of the smartest Joe Jackson offerings. Even Madonna's “True Blue” bubbles under the surface of “The Disappointed” (which leaves the listener anything but) and “Omnibus” and “Rook” pay homage to any number of angular and rapid-fire show tunes. And if it's not too obvious, let's go ahead and connect the dots to Sir Paul with “Books Are Burning” and the most pettable sounds of Brian Wilson via “Humble Daisy.”

In fact, one of the great achievements of Nonsuch is the fact that the influences don't get in the way, and in large measure that can be chalked up to Gus Dudgeon's production, and the enigmatic lyrics of Partridge and Moulding. Add to that Partridge's surgical approach to lick-lifting, and there's never a feeling of thievery, even when it's rather obvious that it took place (!). And can you really envision songs like “War Dance,” “Holly Up on Poppy,” and “Peter Pumpkinhead” created by anyone else?

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “nonsuch” as “a person or thing that is regarded as perfect or excellent.” This would be hubris for a lesser album. Applied to this majestic collection - it's spot on.