The members of XTC desperately needed a hit in 1985. Virgin Records, the band’s record label at the time, was breathing down its neck and demanding profits, essentially giving the band one last chance to earn its keep. Ever since the British group stopped touring in 1982, its album sales had continually diminished, leaving little evidence that XTC could do more than barely scrape by as a studio-only band with a cult following.

Even despite the fact that XTC made two great albums of its signature intelligent pop after 1982, the band’s members were unable to attract the attention that they deserved. The time had come for the band to take a gamble in the hopes of winning new fans and its label’s respect. Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory culled their resources – the many songs they had written and demoed – and started thinking about producers. Virgin suggested Todd Rundgren, the band accepted, and the rest is history.

As admirers of Rundgren’s solo work, his band, Utopia, and his skill at producing other artists, the lads in the band was eager to begin recording at Rundgren’s Woodstock, N.Y. studio. Against the expectation that the sessions would be a pleasant experience, the stubborn Partridge and Rundgren immediately began to butt heads, kicking off months of strenuous recording. Also unexpected, but this time fortunately, was the fact that the finished product would become XTC’s most dynamic, cohesive and all-around best record.

Rundgren had a particular vision for the album that would become Skylarking. In fact, he ordered and conceptualized XTC’s demos well before the band even arrived, structuring a concept album that ebbed and flowed. Rundgren had in mind a collection of songs based around themes of nature and love, arranged to mirror the progression of a summer day, the four seasons or the phases of human life. Each song would blend into the next, creating a unified listening experience.

Despite all the turmoil that accompanied its creation, the end product is breathtaking. Rundgren’s unusual recording practices, authoritative behavior, harsh criticism and sarcasm made for a very uncomfortable experience, said to Partridge and Moulding. Partridge, initially unhappy with the way Skylarking turned out, now admits that it is one of his favorite XTC albums.

The sun rises in opening track “Summer’s Cauldron,” a song about carefree immersion in nature, complete with crickets chirping and bees buzzing. Next come the bright shades of whimsical infatuation on the Moulding-penned tracks, “Grass” and “The Meeting Place,” leading straight into relationship troubles in the clever and evidently Rundgren-influenced “That’s Really Super, Supergirl.”

After the sunny morning begin the afternoon showers of “Ballet for a Rainy Day,” and the downpour of the gloomy, orchestral “1000 Umbrellas.” These cathartic tracks give way to the philosophical musings of the Beach Boys-inspired “Season Cycle,” which epitomizes Skylarking’s themes, asks weighty questions of the human condition in a light, airy and spirited style.

Mid-afternoon – the beginning of side two of the original vinyl – covers the topic of marriage. The optimistic and Beatle-esque “Earn Enough for Us” and the conversely cynical “Big Day” examine the intricacies of long-term commitments, while dusk settles in with “Another Satellite,” an autobiographical story about fending off an extramarital crush.

“The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” is a suave, Bond movie-style lounge tune about an aged man who reflects on his life to find nothing but pain and regret.

The next song on the album is the one that, arguably, single-handedly saved XTC. “Dear God” was originally not featured on Skylarking, but after its placement on the B-side of the “Grass” single, it garnered shocking amounts of attention from American college radio stations, which started playing it rather than the intended single. The poignant and controversial song was framed in the ironic form of a letter to God from a child that doesn’t believe in him.

“Dear God” proved to be thought-provoking as well as anger-inducing, driving some radical Christians to write angry letters to Partridge and, in a few cases, even to threaten violence against radio stations that played the song. All of the controversy, positive and negative, created an enormous buzz, leading Virgin to recall the initial copies of Skylarking and quickly press new versions with “Dear God” blended in as if it had been there all along. The album subsequently spent more than six months on the U.S. album charts, giving XTC the boost that it needed.

On the album, “Dear God” leads into “Dying,” a heartfelt song about fearing the inevitability of death, similar in theme to “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul,” the song it originally followed. The record then closes with the rousing “Sacrificial Bonfire,” which celebrates the life cycle and reaches back to many points on the album, most notably, “Season Cycle.” “Bonfire” points out that death is not an ending, but a necessary component of life’s cycle – that only through death can new life be born.

It is remarkable how completely in tune songwriters Partridge and Moulding were in writing the songs that ended up on Skylarking. Their tone and subject matter are so closely intertwined that it truly is as if one person wrote every song. Skylarking is as cohesive an album as there is, period. It runs the gamut of human emotions and musical styles without being all over the map. Skylarking is at once highly eclectic and yet entirely cohesive, paradoxically perfect in a strange and magical way that truly captures some of the inexplicable wonders of life.

XTC is a band that has been at its finest hour for practically the last twenty years, always turning out music that is unique, imaginative, thoughtful and intelligent. Nonetheless, the difficult birth of Skylarking, due to the fusion of both XTC’s and Rundgren’s creative genius, makes it a project that is absolutely one-of-a-kind, and a master work with which music lovers owe it to themselves to become acquainted.

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