I was introduced to XTC’s Skylarking through a rather unlikely source — the Hawaiʻi Public Library.
A branch of the library located by my high school had a cassette of Skylarking in its collection. I had just read a cover story about XTC in a music magazine, and I borrowed it.
I was blown away.
It became one of my favorite albums — not life-changing on the level of Kronos Quartet’s Black Angels but certainly comfort listening on the level of the Sugarcubes’ Life’s Too Good.
Funny thing is, I never owned a copy of the album until recently.
I made a dub of the library’s tape and considered that my owner’s copy. Nearly 20 years later — and absolutely burned out by new music — I decided to start stocking up on catalog titles, and Skylarking was one of those purchases.
Structured as a song cycle, the album follows childhood, adulthood and death as events in a single day. It starts of with the sunny double-punch of "Summer’s Cauldron" and "Grass". It ends with the quiet poignancy of "Sacrificial Bonfire".
Along the way, the tenor of the music evolves. The bright, buyont beginning tracks get more sophisticated by the middle of the album. "Ballet for a Rainy Day" segues into "1000 Umbrellas" with the orchestral flash of late-era Beatles.
"Earn Enough for Us" is a sensible, straight-forward pop song and perhaps one of the most overused songs in Gen X-pandering Hollywood films of the early ’90s. "Seasons Cycle" goes for a Brian Wilson feel.
Skylarking reaches its final turning point with "Another Satellite" — the music gets quieter, darker, till it concludes with almost a whisper.
The most popular song from the album, "Dear God", didn’t actually appear on the album. It was a b-side to a single that became a college radio hit, forcing Virgin Records to replace "Mermaid Smiled" with "Dear God"
For its remastered reissue a few years back, the original album sequence was restored, and "Dear God" was tacked on as a bonus track.
"Dear God" was a teenage anthem for me, a Catholic high school student trying to figure out if the belief system God inhabited really meant anything. This song clarified that position.
Skylarking achieved a remarkable feat in 1986 that still feels quite new 20 years later. The music wore its influences on its sleeves while still sounding modern, and the ambition of the songwriting outstrips its modern contemporaries.
Like an old fart as myself would say, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.