Skylarking was XTC’s breakthrough album in the United States, and a deeply troubled production in every sense of the word. Every fan knows about group frontman Andy Partridge’s sour working relationship with producer Todd Rundgren, which he likened to “two Führers in one bunker” and which threatened to send the entire project flying off the rails. But the troubles went further than that. Partridge complained for years that the album XTC got out of the sessions was nowhere near the product they had expected. Skylarking’s rocky gestation showed through in the finished vinyl, which sounded noticeably brittle, distant and paper-thin — a particularly grievous blow for a band that took great care in achieving the sound they wanted in the studio.
Partridge chalked this up to Rundgren’s poor engineering skills, and while he overstated the case, it turns out he had a point. While preparing a new vinyl pressing for Partridge’s own Ape House label, engineer John Dent found a flaw in the original stereo master tape that stemmed from a badly patched console in Rundgren’s studio. The stereo master had a reversed polarity, whatever that exactly is, and with a little knob-twiddling, Dent was able to finally restore the album that XTC had expected to hear way back in 1986.
So is this something worth getting excited about? If you’re a fan of XTC, or of great pop music in general, it very much is. “Remastered” is one of the great marketing chimeras of the recording industry, often little more than a gimmick to get listeners to re-buy a favorite album for the promise of a few added bits of fidelity that no one other than a Dolby mastering engineer can appreciate. Skylarking, however, is the real deal. It’s not a radical transformation — this doesn’t suddenly sound like a Rick Rubin production — but it illustrates how much we’ve been missing without knowing it for the past 28 years.
In its previous incarnations, Skylarking was like a cake with a heavy top layer, a thin bottom and no middle. It’s high end was shrill and shimmery, its lows lopped off and lacking punch. The new edition restores Skylarking’s gutted mid-tones and brings a new level of clarity to its entire soundscape. The bass, in particular, is revelatory. Partridge may have complained the most about Rundgren, but it turns out to be bass player Colin Moulding who was done the worst by the original mix. From the first number, Partridge’s languid “Summer’s Cauldron,” Moulding’s bass is warm, crisp and fully present, firmly driving the song — and the album — as it was intended to do. The album as a whole is more, well, whole, with a full, natural dynamic range. There are moments when this equates to a reduced sense of “attack,” most noticeably in “Dear God.” The song’s pounding, rage-fueled coda is more in-your-face in the previous versions (particularly the Virgin remaster from 2001), but the new Skylarking eschews such histrionics in favor of a broader, more balanced spectrum of sound. It’s a trade worth making.
In making this definitive version of the album, Partridge created a new running order accommodating both “Dear God” and “Mermaid Smiled” (read this if you don’t already know why that matters) and restored his initial idea for the album’s cover art, scuttled because several British music retailers — can you imagine? — said they wouldn’t stock it. As if that weren’t icing enough, this version corrects a longstanding pet peeve of mine: the track “1,000 Umbrellas” now begins cleanly on the first verse, not with that chopped-off “—greyyyyyy” carried over from “Ballet for a Rainy Day.” This is the version of Skylarking that belongs in your library.
Buy Skylarking direct from Ape House.