On 1980's Black Sea, their paradox-rock packed a new insistence. Side one is a classic string of songs, a pure-pop amalgam of confessional introspection and barbed commentary. Next came the sprawling, effectively self-indulgent English Settlement and the unassumingly trippy Mummer, after which XTC began polishing away its specialness, apparently mistaking their rickety charms for rough spots. Although they've never run low on inspiration, following their instincts even when they led off the plank, most of XTC's work doesn't float on the unforgiving sea of timelessness.
As usual, on Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Vol. 2) the overall quality level hinges on main songwriter Andy Partridge, a self-absorbed craftsman whose talent lies in welding his musings, both trivial and curious, to pre-carved pop forms. As if in a lopsided version of the Beatles, Partridge plays Paul McCartney to Colin Moulding's George Harrison. Partridge's obscure minutiae can be as cloying as Paul's fluffiest dirge. "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love," in addition to its sagging titular metaphor, is guilty of being a rewrite of White Music's "Statue of Liberty."
A foil to Partridge's indulgences, Moulding is quietly competitive like Harrison. He's allowed a couple of songs per album. Perhaps an indication that XTC's quirk-cred has come full circle, Moulding's sounds-like-it-sounds "Stupidly Happy" opens with a weirdly catchy riff that evokes, of all things, Game Theory. "Boarded Up" is almost unrecognizable as Moulding. It's an XTC fence painted with Pink Floyd in Springsteen's Nebraska. By contrast, "Standing in for Joe" is Moulding's best half-rocker since "Generals and Majors." In bad need of an inner editor, Partridge doesn't fare as well. Where Moulding brings in his top-drawer stuff, you get the feeling Partridge is trying new material out on an audience that should be getting his final drafts.
As is usual for late XTC, the harmonies are given too much space in an overproduction that calls for the firm hand of Steve Lillywhite, the one producer who could cut them down to size. But what really keeps XTC out of the realm of radio pop is Partridge's long-winded bellow. Though it's made a smooth transition from punk oddness to unbridled artiness, his voice remains the sound equivalent of cream going sour. Partridge contaminates XTC by placing blind trust in his own organic quirks -- his muddy stream-of-consciousness is at odds with the clipped cadence of pop. If his obsessions were tension-filled and direct instead of trivial and oblique, they might live up to the promise of the music. Until then, XTC will remain the world's best cult band.