Originally released February 12, 1982.
1982 was the year it was all finally going to happen for XTC. They had been working a hard grind of touring, recording and promotion for the better part of five years, and the dividends were rolling in: a clutch of successful singles, a high-profile opening slot for the Police, and an album that looked like it would finally lift them to the ranks of deserved rock stardom. It didn’t happen, of course. Andy Partridge began suffering panic attacks on stage and eventually swore off live performance entirely, and the album that could have marked their emergence as a world-class band instead proved to be their last album intended to be played for live audiences.
That album, English Settlement, is a modestly titled (and obliquely sleeved) affair that belies a sprawling collection of compositional brilliance, along with a stylistic leap forward that seems astonishing in retrospect. “I think we were feeling the need to stretch ourselves a little; those huge gigs with the Police had the effect of upping our game,” says Dave Gregory. Previously, XTC songs clamored for your attention in nearly every bar; the songs on English Settlement enticed you in with a nuanced, almost subliminal wash of sound. (Check out the slow, atmospheric build-up to the opening track, Colin Moulding’s “Runaways.”) With assistance from co-producer Hugh Padgham, nearly every song offers an instrumental texture or production idea that had never been heard on an XTC record before, from the diced-up saxophone solo on “It’s Nearly Africa” (played, none too adroitly, by Partridge himself) to the angry buzz that pulses through “Fly on the Wall.”
These changes stemmed from a modest origin: the band got itself some new gear. “We purchased a Prophet V synthesizer, our road-weary monophonic Korg 700S having served what little purpose we had for it,” says Gregory. “Working at the Townhouse studios on Drums and Wires and Black Sea, I’d rekindled my love of the piano as a result of tinkering around on the beautiful concert grands installed there; I wanted to get more keyboards on the next record. Andy bought himself a new acoustic guitar, a Yamaha. Colin Moulding had been influenced, I suspect, by Sting’s bass playing and bought a fretless Ibanez. In July I finally found an affordable Rickenbacker 12-string guitar, something I’d been seeking since the first American trip. As new toys, these instruments informed the sounds and textures that would characterize the new songs.
“We put the Prophet to good use in ‘It’s Nearly Africa’, where I’d formulated a marimba part; synth marimba, tom-toms, scratchy guitar, bass and vocals and not much else — quite primitive, as the song suggests. ‘Yacht Dance’ was also a fairly minimal production; it would never have found a home on Black Sea. I was very happy with the little nylon-string guitar riffery there; I don’t get to play in that style very often! For ‘Melt the Guns’ we made a loop of Terry Chambers playing drumsticks, and used that as the main rhythm reference.”
If there’s one track that exemplifies XTC’s new, expanded sound, it’s “Senses Working Overtime.” Written to be the hit single it turned into, Partridge’s magnum opus begins with an almost inaudible acoustic guitar — itself a novelty for this band — before bursting into a glittering, chiming extravaganza of Rickenbacker chords, swooping bass fills and driving rhythms that seems to get louder and faster right until the last bars, where the music gives way to a gaggle of very English-sounding crows. “We weren’t certain, given the prevailing musical climate of the time, whether Virgin would be brave enough to release it,” says Gregory. “Thank goodness they did! I’m still playing that song with my band Tin Spirits, and it’s still a rousing crowd-pleaser.”
While “Senses” was a written-to-order crowd-pleaser, other tracks show the band’s two writers exploring more nuanced and personal subject matter. “I was always surprised and delighted at the sheer number of songs that Andy and Colin produced,” Gregory says. “The variety of subject matter offered no end of possibilities for instrumentation, an absolute gift for me in my side-man role.” Moulding’s “Ball and Chain” and “English Roundabout” both address an England growing increasingly ugly and dehumanized, while Partridge tackles the trials of the unemployed (“Leisure”), urban violence (“No Thugs in Our House”) and most memorably, the passage of time and the loss of opportunity in “All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late).” “’All Of A Sudden’ was probably our first real ‘love’ song, and the Rick 12 has a melancholy timbre that works perfectly; ‘plangent’ was a word bandied about at the time.”
In the end, English Settlement was XTC’s most successful album, peaking at number 5 on the British chart and remaining a source of satisfaction to the band members to this day. “I certainly felt that I’d left my mark on the band with that record,” says Gregory. “The keyboard work and the Rickenbacker, in particular, which has since become very much a ‘pet sound’ of mine. That the album made it to number 5 was really gratifying, and a big reward for all the hard work we’d done.”