That any band should release their most rewarding work in their forties would defy convention, and yet for XTC, unconventionality proved their mainstay. A six-year hiatus between albums did little for the group’s commercial standing. Neither did the departure of guitarist Dave Gregory. And yet Apple Venus, Vol. 1 proves a delicious elegy to an England lost in memory, the swirling symphonic textures an Anglo treaty to the congenial American tones of the Beach Boys and the ornate Irish ballads from chamberpop outfit The Divine Comedy.
Superficially, the theatricality is honored through three tracks, “Rivers of Orchids”, “Easter Theatre” and “Frivolous Tonight”, the last a charming vignette written by bass guitarist Colin Moulding. Now a duo, XTC’s newest album was a pastoral affair, swirling strings, backward harmonies and incongruous metallic guitars compensating for the band’s diminished membership. Originally conceived as a double album, Apple Venus Vol 1 continued with the more rock-oriented Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) in 2000. The first album was a collection of works written before 1994. “We had all of these songs at the end of ’97 and wanted to come back into the public eye with something a bit different” Moulding recalled, “so we divided them up. The first one’s got a lot more acoustic/orchestral-type songs on it. We felt this is the right way to come back into the public eye”.
It was a worthy comeback, although that was a verb which didn’t enter Partridge’s vocabulary. “We never went away!” he protested. “We just weren’t legally allowed to work. Comebacks always have such glittery-suit, Fablon, working-men’s clubs connotations.” Striking against their label, the intervening years allowed Partridge to focus on his work, striking a balance between the lofty conceptual and the starkly real. If The Dukes of Stratosphear and SkyLarking left listeners unsure of the everyday pains their writers endured, “Your Dictionary” proved an entry point into Partridge’s milieu, a concrete concession to his marital failings.
Initially unsure of its place, Partridge accepted its quality after it was met with rapturous acclaim from colleagues. Mindful of a childhood spent in Swindon, “Harvest Festival” painted a fiery fable, Partridge’s lyricism detailing a celebratory night. “The Last Balloon” tolled the end of the 20th century — and the imminent end of XTC’s career.
Partridge coined Apple Venus, Vol. 1 an “Orchustic” album. Those who found the dynamics too overwhelming were compensated when XTC released Homespun, purer and clearer demos which made their way to various Apple Venus projects. Furthering the band’s frugality for the name of great art, Moulding taped tap drops, creaking chairs and bass overdubs from his own home. Beatlemaniacs to the end, XTC worked with a forty-person orchestra in their treasured Abbey Road, Partridge refusing to compromise the sound for the more expedient synthesizer.
That such an expansive record could stand on its feet made XTC’s 2006 break-up a bit more palatable. Partridge later wrote Powers, a seismic work steeped in sci-fi, while Moulding reunited in 2017 with XTC drummer Terry Chambers to record the excellent TC&I. An XTC reunion remains the work of fantasy, one Partridge and Moulding once put to good use over tumbling words and beauteous music.
Photo Credit: Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding of XTC (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns courtesy of Getty Images)