XTC made many strong albums, but Skylarking is the consensus pick for their finest work. Producer Todd Rundgren was still feuding with Andy Partridge thirty years after working on Skylarking, but he did a fine job, choosing songs from the band’s demos based on theme, and pushing the group’s arrangements in more diverse directions than usual. ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’ swings, while ‘Summer’s Cauldron’ arrangement is psychedelic and off-kilter.
The summery first side of the album is practically flawless, while the second is less cohesive but still features the strident ‘Earn Enough For Us’, the affecting ‘Dying’, and the climactic ‘Sacrificial Bonfire’. Bass player Colin Moulding’s songwriting feels weightier than usual; instead of his typical quirky stories about his garden, he tackles the big issues of sex, marriage, death, and animal sacrifice. Partridge uses bright analogies to mask dark thoughts in ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’ and ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’, and creatively rhymes “cycle” with “umbilical” in ‘Season’s Cycle’. Dave Gregory contributes some lovely piano work; his fills in ‘Ballet For A Rainy Day’ are beautiful.
Skylarking features many moments of magic, like the switch from the messy psychedelia to the refreshingly direct piano in the chorus of ‘Summer’s Cauldron’, and the harmonised chorus of ‘The Meeting Place’. Skylarking is one of the best album of the 1980s, and the jewel in XTC’s excellent catalogue.