LITTLE SEEMS to have gone right for XTC charter member, principal songwriter and frontman Andy Partridge in the 1990s. Record company woes left the band on hiatus until its contract with Virgin Records expired. (Well-chronicled stage fright by Mr. Partridge meant that the band has not toured since 1982, so going on the road live was not an option.) Meanwhile, Mr. Partridge’s own marriage ended with a bitter divorce, and long-time member Dave Gregory left the band. To boot, Mr. Partridge has had serious health problems with everything from his prostate to his eardrum. In the midst of this strife, XTC – now just the duo of Mr. Partridge and fellow charter member Colin Moulding with studio hired guns – has released the first truly great album of 1999. They do so seven years since their last album, Nonesuch, and 17 years since they last cracked the Top 10 with Senses Working Overtime. The latest album, Apple Venus Volume I, recalls some of the chamber pop experimentation of the band’s 1980s heyday. (The most useful reference point might well be the 1986 gem, Skylarking.) While there is said to be a Volume 2 in the works for later this year – a more rocking affair that will bring back memories of those chiming electric guitars that marked so much of their best work of the past – this album has little or no drums and even less electric guitar. It is a pastoral fusion of acoustic instruments and orchestral flourishes (“orch-oustic” in the band’s words), but it also incorporates horns in a way new for XTC listeners.
The first sound of XTC since 1992 is River of Orchids. It features drops of water, double bass plucks, pizzicato violins, and sharp brass before Mr. Partridge even comes in with the single melodic and vocal phrase upon which the song is built. One hears songs that could have been the direction Paul McCartney’s career might have gone had he shown a bit more artistic daring through the years; indeed, the Beatlesque reference points continue for XTC in general, and Mr. Partridge in particular. On the one hand, there is the pure pop of I’d Like That, which conjures up images of Love On a Farmboy’s Wages, from XTC’s 1984 disc Mummer. On the other, Greenman has Middle Eastern quirks in the midst of Sgt. Pepper- era fab four musical flashbacks. The dissolution of Mr. Partridge’s marriage seems to have been the chief wound on his heart as he crafted the album. (He wrote nine of the 11 songs on Apple Venus Volume I). Things are most direct and caustic on the strummed rave, Your Dictionary, while Mr. Partridge brings things to a climax with the penultimate track, I Can’t Own Her, and the vignette of a wedding day, Harvest Festival, which closes the album. The thoughtful writing of Mr. Partridge has consistently explored spiritual themes on XTC’s albums through the years. The most infamous example from the past is the Skylarking track Dear God – infamous because the clever crisis-of-faith song caused an outcry from some Christian groups. More typically, though, Mr. Partridge’s lyrics simply use Christian themes as imagery reference points. Though nothing vaguely resembling a hit single is likely, Apple Venus Volume I is nothing short of a masterpiece. For the Christian listener, the biblical reference points are part of a rich scope of imagery. More generally, the brutally honest reflections of a life in transition will resonate with many people. Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.