Own It or Disown It: #253: XTC, English Settlement

OwnItorDisownIt

The new-wave band's third album turned thirty-five this past month, and we think it deserves your attention.

Maybe I need someone else to curate the albums I cover for this column. The freedom granted with this bit of web space gives me plenty of room to do whatever I want, but as of late, leaving me to my own devices has me, for the most part, covering works of stupidly good quality, and what’s worse is that they are often from artists or bands that I’m not a fan of, so there’s no perspective or retrospective to give without invoking some degree of dishonesty. Who are XTC? Ask me that question last week, and I’d have given the hilariously incorrect answer that they were a run-of-the-mill rock band from the 80s whose appeal should have died with that decade, whose works could easily be sequenced with Duran Duran and Bon Jovi. Now, having given their fifth album, English Settlement (which turned thirty-five years old this past month), far more spins than literally any other album this week, I can only urge you to check out it for yourself because this might be your new favorite album of all time.

Let’s be clear: English Settlement is a rock album with new-wave elements that make it easier to draw comparisons to Remain In Light than Rio. On that note, English Settlement is a little better than Remain In Light, by dint of that Light has one or two not-so-great tracks on it, which is one or two more tracks than English Settlement. It is as good as Faith by George Michael. It is almost as good as OK Computer. You need to own this album.

This is the rare new-wave album that earns and deserves all of its seventy-two minutes. It, at once, never takes itself too seriously and takes itself deathly seriously—the anti-gun anthem “Melt the Guns”, for instance, is put over a funky rhythm so righteous that even Phish’s attempts at covering it seemed to be attempts at playing it note for note. Several songs on this album are of conventional structure on initial blush, until what would have been the coda to close the song bursts into a whole other verse and breakdown. Fast-forward to any second of this album and you’ll be at something that evokes, and successfully conveys, joy. Then there’s “Senses Working Overtime”, which might be one of the greatest love songs of all time even though it isn’t explicitly about love but totally works as a love song because the subtext is all about love and dear God, there’s just nothing about this album that doesn’t work.

For all of that, though, there’s still that this is English Settlement by XTC, which isn’t easy to prop up as its own sort of brilliance. Only enthusiasts for this band seem to know of the brilliance of this album; everyone else is at where I was a week ago, perfectly fine with never being able to name a single song from that one band from the 80s. Rolling Stone’s Album Guide has English Settlement pegged at two stars out of five, a slight decrease from the three stars it earned on its initial release; it has a score of less than four on RateYourMusic; the Chicago Tribune brushed it aside in a retrospective review of the band’s work. Pitchfork, of all places, put it on their list of the best albums of the 80s, sandwiched between Naked City by John Zorn and Sign O’ the Times by Prince, likely the most recognition the album has received by a major publication in the past fifteen years, and even that registers as backhanded praise as their later album Skylarking was placed much more favorably.

Which is to say that I’m probably going to recommend Skylarking with blind fervor at some point in the near future. Seriously, I might need help.

VERDICT: OWN

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