I can remember that icy and wet Saturday in late February, 1982 as my friends and I made our way into the city on our usual Saturday record trek – that was the routine. Meet at the ferry; walk up Broadway to Prince Street and start hitting all the record stores. One of our favorites was Bonaparte’s – The British Record Shop (full name, on the awning) located in what later became Bleecker Bob’s (which was originally near the corner of 8th Street, on MacDougal); this was right before they closed (which was devastating). Bonaparte’s had everything punk/new wave in a great atmosphere. The window-lined racks always had that particular week’s new releases – albums were usually $7.99; singles $1.99 (remember – these were imports).
On this particular Saturday, I was actually there to get something before I started browsing; I had to have the new XTC album, which just made it over to these shores. It was called English Settlement; it was a double album and XTC were one of my favorite bands, along with The Jam, The Buzzcocks, The Undertones, The Damned, The Teardrop Explodes and The (English) Beat. We’d seen XTC the previous April at The Palladium – they were a live powerhouse and so this being the follow-up to Black Sea, it had to be as good if not better. I’d already picked up the lead-off single, “Senses Working Overtime” a week before and so I was ready… Oh, and it only cost me $14.99 for that 2-lp import.
Let it be said – when I heard that album in its entirety for the first time, I couldn’t speak. And listening to it again, start to finish, more than 32 years later, I still feel the same. It moves me to near tears. English Settlement is one of those rare achievements in music: a perfect album. There is no filler on here – all meat, no fat – and a stunning exercise of how a band that used the punk/new wave movement as a springboard became, quite possibly, the finest of all. XTC elevated themselves above their contemporaries with this album; certainly, their most fully-realized work. Cohesive, timely, musically broad and best of all, it is as powerful to listen to today, as it was then. English Settlement set a much higher standard for the bands that had stayed the course in the aftermath of punk and new wave.
English Settlement is a textbook example of lyrical precision and razorsharp musicianship; recorded at Virgin’s Manor Studios in late 1981 and produced by Hugh Padgham (who worked with The Jam, Genesis, Phil Collins and The Police), it has the right “feel”, thanks to the physical surroundings/atmosphere. A number of songs on this album are flavored with acoustic guitars, both delicately weaving endless notes and strumming with joyful abandon and it’s that “pastoral” vibe that give so much life to the more-subdued tracks. “Senses Working Overtime”, “All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late)” and the unabashedly gorgeous “Yacht Dance” are part of this “countryside” set. Just because the voltage is lower, doesn’t make the songs any less intense or the lyrical subject matter any less topical. So the physical setting was equally important to the idea behind English Settlement, when you get down to it. Even the album cover, with the use of the Uffington White Horse image… – this was England, early 1982. The lyrics to the songs on English Settlement – both those of Andy Partridge and of Colin Moulding – reach a mastery of language that could easily be set aside for poetry books. And with this album, Andy Partridge showed his lyrical skill to be the only real successor to Ray Davies as England’s finest observational writer; his very “Britishness” mixed with wryness and some anger puts him at the apex of the lauded punk/new wave writers.
At the same time, English Settlement doesn’t lose any of the trademark XTC quirkiness: the jittery ska of “Down In The Cockpit” (my personal favorite) with its lyrical theme of oppression towards women; the skittish Black Sea-like “Knuckle Down” (a rant against violence); the innovation – at the time – of the Prophet V synthesizer on “Fly On The Wall” (voyeurism and surveillance) – while it sounds like XTC as one expects, it still is light years from where they’d been. But looking at some of the other tracks – this is a very grown-up and in many ways, disillusioned XTC: witty but no less aggravated on “Leisure”, opining on the joys of being unemployed; “No Thugs In Our House” which is a sardonic view of (presumably) skinhead violence and what happens when the culprit is the son of a judge; “Runaways” – Moulding’s painful look at domestic violence… this is all very heady stuff. And let it be said – Colin Moulding’s four songs on this album are equal in quality to those of Andy Partridge’s.
In listening to the music, XTC managed to fully paint the musical/artistic canvas delicately with rich hues, covering every possible inch. Guitarist Dave Gregory’s absolutely masterful skill with the guitar ranges from riffs galore to intricate notes borderlining classical Flamenco (once again, the exquisite “Yacht Dance”) to the chimes of a 12-string Rickenbacker. Gregory’s playing swings from very deft technical proficiency to outright sensitivity – his work is the embodiment of tasteful. Drummer Terry Chambers, whose signature powerhouse drumming – a jackhammer player, especially live – is as equally a tasteful player. A musical, thoughtful drummer who shows his range by his standard, muscular manner, as on “No Thugs In Our House” to the tribal rhythms of “It’s Nearly Africa” and the Latin feel of “English Roundabout”. Equally important is Chambers’ knowing when not to play – his restraint on “Yacht Dance” is indicative of this. His anchoring partner, Colin Moulding is more fluid than ever with his milky bass playing – much of it on a fretless bass, which gives a more acoustic and jazzy feel to his usual style. And Andy Partridge’s knack for melody and song structure are matched by his fine guitar playing in tandem with Dave Gregory and the dynamics of how he applies his vocals to each song.
Four sides of a moment – one of those very special moments. And even a few decades later, that special moment is still able to be recaptured because it was bottled up in this most remarkable of albums. Like Revolver; like Pet Sounds; like Kilimanjaro; like Repercussion – English Settlement is simply perfect.
P.S. “Heaven Is Paved With Broken Glass” is one of the B-sides on the “Ball and Chain” single. If you’re a fan of XTC, you already knew that.