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”Some folks see the world as a stone
Concrete daubed in dull monotone
Your heart is the big box of paints...”
British New Wave/Alternative Pop band XTC’s tenth full-length release, Nonsuch, was both a continuation and a natural progress, as the trio build upon – and refined – the sound and style of their preceding albums, in particular their two previous LPs, 1986’s Skylarking and 1989’s Oranges & Lemons. Recorded with a small group of session musicians and produced by Gus Dudgeon (Elton John), Nonsuch showcases XTC at their very best and in all their eccentric glory. Featuring all of seventeen sophisticated songs, many of which draw on various sources of influence, Nonsuch is an eclectic, kaleidoscopic and idiosyncratic album – XTC’s magnum opus in every sense of the word. The stylistically very different compositions, and the elaborate assortment of instruments (acoustic & electric guitars, bass, e-bow guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, piano, Hammond organ, drums, percussion, strings, tambourine, flugelhorns, trumpets, shakers, harmonica, viola & violin, cello), as well as the diverse subjects touched upon in the lyrics, all evokes a wide range of emotions that vary from tranquility, euphoria, frustration, fear, depression, hope and happiness, to indignation and anger.
Nonsuch contains its fair share of melodically driven, toe-tapping Pop songs such as the hook-laden Dear Madam Barnum, the trumpet-infused My Bird Performs (lead vocalist/guitarist Andy Partridge: ”The best melody that Paul Simon never wrote”), the sun-drenched Then She Appeared (Byrds-esque 12-string guitars meet Beach Boys harmonies), and the first single, The Disappointed (downbeat lyrics set to upbeat music), which reached U.K. No. 33 and received an Ivor Novello Award nomination. Interspersed among these are three emotive ballads; the gorgeous, Brian Wilson-inspired Humble Daisy, the majestic Books Are Burning (about the power of the written word), and the wistful, albeit spiritually uplifting, Wrapped In Grey (”Some folks see the world as a stone / Concrete daubed in dull monotone / Your heart is the big box of paints”).
XTC also provided their longtime fans with the type of off-kilter, unorthodox songwriting that they’d come to expect from the trio: The Smartest Monkeys is a refreshingly acerbic social commentary on the evolution of mankind (“Well, man created the cardboard box to sleep in it / And man converted the newspaper to a blanket / Well, you have to admit that he's come a long way / Since swinging about in the trees”); with an undercurrent of Psychedelia, the dizzying, undulating That Wave compares drowning in love to being washed over and swept away by a powerful ocean wave (“I swam down to the bottom of the sky / Where I questioned the blue birds all about it / I was in heaven / Address cloud eleven”); Omnibus is euphoric, head over heels in love with women, its energetic piano licks and trumpets bouncing off each other, suggesting giddy excitement and naive child-like wonder; and then there’s The Ugly Underneath, a manic track with a slightly eccentric lead vocal and scathing lyrics about lies, deceit, and blindness to the truth, whether it be in a marriage or in politics ("But after all the voting / Suck away the sugar coating / Now they've had you, and they're gloating / Boy, it's Ugly Underneath”).
XTC's appropriately-titled Nonsuch (meaning: “unique”) received a Grammy Award nomination for “Best Alternative Music Album” and reached No. 28 on the U.K. Album Chart. A carefully and cleverly crafted masterpiece, Nonsuch might very well be the most fascinating, multifaceted record of the 1990s along with The Church’s Priest=Aura.