It begins modestly enough: a single water droplet lands in a pool with a bright thwop; it is followed, after a longer-than-expected pause, by an ominous plucked bass note. The next drop is answered by two more plucks, and after more than a minute of accumulation a full orchestra is picking out a pair of syncopated, stepladder-like phrases, marching giddily up and down in an eternal pas de deux. Then a horn section enters, sounding like a flock of ornery ducks, and before Andy Partridge even begins singing, you gratefully understand: this is exactly the kind of bold, sly inventiveness the pop world has lacked without XTC.
A stalemate with its former record label kept the band out of the studio for five years, during which time lead songwriter Partridge carried on anyway, writing a batch of songs that indulged the passion for orchestral sounds and textures he had begun to cultivate on the band’s 1992 release, the excellent (and much under-rated) Nonsuch. In a perfect world, Apple Venus, Volume 1 would have been in stores a good five or six years ago, but it ultimately doesn’t make any difference: this album is timeless, resting far beyond the reach of the music media’s pigeonholing clutches. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the aforementioned opening track, “River of Orchids.” Partridge weaves a vision of arboreal plenty, exhorting the listener to “take a packet of seeds/take yourself out to play” and reclaim primal nature from the cars and motorways that have despoiled it. What sets the song apart is the arrangement: a breathtaking cartwheel of overlapped horns, strings, and vocals, assembled with great warmth and wit. If Brian Wilson doesn’t wish he’d written this song, he ought to.
While none of the remaining ten tracks is as eyebrow-raising as this one–they couldn’t be–the album as a whole is the bravest and most emotionally affecting the group has ever made. Like 1986’s Skylarking, which many continue to rate as XTC’s masterpiece, Apple Venus, Volume 1 unfolds as a suite of semi-related songs, exploring the twin influences of nature and human relationships. The nature theme in particular is familiar ground for Partridge, and this album contains three of his best explorations of the subject. In addition to “River of Orchids,” there is “Easter Theatre,” a gorgeous song whose lyric recasts the nature pageantry of Skylarking’s “Season Cycle” into a bona fide spectacle in which the listeners become the audience at a celebration of rebirth:
Enter Easter and she’s dressed in yellow yolk
Now the son has died; the father can be born
If we’d all breathe in, and blow away the smoke
We’d applaud her new life.
Then there is “Greenman,” in which nature is personified in ruttingly male, rather than maternally female, terms: “Please to bend down for the one called the Greenman/He wants to make you his bride.” Musically the track is the most exciting on the album, a widescreen cinematic rush of strings thumped and caromed forward by a lively, pagan-sounding drumbeat. If ever a piece of music made you want to dance naked around a bonfire, it’s this one. (Just make sure the neighbors are away.)
That takes care of nature, but what about those pesky human relationships? Having gone through a nasty divorce during the band’s time off, Partridge, not surprisingly, has a few things to say on the subject. “Your Dictionary” is a bitter fuck-you to a divorced spouse, its two verses spat out with a most un-Partridgean amount of bile. The heavy-handed sarcasm of the lyrics (“S-H-I-T/Is that how you spell me in your dictionary?”) threaten to stand as one of his less inspired moments, but the song’s coda saves it: suddenly the key jumps from minor to major and the chords descend as delicately as a falling leaf, the lyrics now sedate and resigned: “So let’s close the book and let the day begin/and our marriage be undone.” Less troubled—indeed, outright bucolic—is “Harvest Festival,” which deftly combines (intentionally or otherwise) the nature/relationship threads into a nostalgic narrative of a schoolboy crush, suddenly dredged from memory by news of the now-grown girl’s wedding. “I’d Like That” is a silly, clever psychedelic folk song with a lolloping beat and lyrics that will make you smile or cringe, depending on how strong your sweet tooth is. The best of all of them, and a genuine breakthrough for Partridge, is “I Can’t Own Her,” a straightforward expression of regret over a lost love. It’s the most direct, personal song he’s ever written, with wrenching lyrics and an achingly beautiful score.
If Apple Venus, Volume 1 shows Andy Partridge advancing both artistically and emotionally, what about his partner and sole remaining bandmate, bassist Colin Moulding? Here he offers two songs, “Frivolous Tonight” and “Fruit Nut,” and both are enjoyable enough, but neither quite makes it to the finish line. The former is a bouncy McCartneyesque vignette about a night out with the lads, and all the drinking, bad stories, and beer-sodden camaraderie that goes with it. The simple chorus is probably the catchiest moment on the album, yet the song somehow falls short of expectations: maybe the lyric is too plain, or the humor too mild; maybe Moulding hadn’t quite worked out how much of the song was satire and how much of it was serious. More successful, though less sweet to the ear, is “Fruit Nut,” the ruminations of a garden-shed emperor surveying his tiny domain. “A man must have a shed to keep him sane,” he confidently explains, over and over, until you begin to suspect that this man is indeed, as the title suggests, a couple of sandwiches short of a full picnic. (The song also serves as a deranged counterpart-in-miniature to Partridge’s more grandiose nature songs, just as “Frivolous” serves as a simple ode to friendship next to his partner’s conflicted musings.) It’s been a while since Moulding’s songs matched Partridge’s in impact–Skylarking was the last time they appeared to work as equals–yet his presence is still integral to the band: he provides the necessary moments of thoughtful, private meditativeness amid the Partridge Theater of the Senses.
All told, Apple Venus, Volume 1 marks a considerable advance in the art of XTC: more ambitious, more accomplished, less prone to hide feelings behind arch lyrics and technical finery. Whether Apple Venus’s companion volume, a collection of noisy guitar-rock slated for release early next year, will maintain this standard is difficult to say. A straight rock album is what many XTC diehards, who hold their worn copies of Drums and Wires and Black Sea close to their hearts, have been longing for, but I’m afraid to hope that a set of three-chord bashers could rise to the thrilling heights this record achieves. Or, as Partridge says in “I Can’t Own Her”:
And I may as well wish for the moon in hand
As there’s more chance of that coming true …
Ah, what the hell. If XTC can’t bring us the moon, who can?