Finally released from a laughably unprofitable record deal with Virgin ("If we were ravens we'd have circled overhead and shat mightily on them before finally flying the coop", says singer/guitarist Andy Partridge in Uncut magazine) after six years on strike, the Swindon popsters return with their first new material since 1992's lackluster Nonsuch. Wistful, romantic, pastoral, smart - there's nary a note out of place on Volume 1. Untroubled with matters like reproducing the album live (Partridge's well-documented stage fright has kept them off the road since ‘82) or scoring a hit, XTC have holed up in a cocoon of long, dense songs containing many small moments of magic.
Partridge's nine songs are simply some of the best songwriting you'll hear all year; from the McCartneyesque bounce of "I'd Like That" to the Ray Davies-worthy "Harvest Festival" to the smarting vitriol of "Your Dictionary" ("S-H-I-T, is that how you spell me in your dictionary?"), these are slowly-unfolding wonders layered with orchestral flourishes, beautiful falsetto vocals and knowing lyrics that, along with airing the heartbreak of Partridge's divorce, use bicycle rides in the rain and longing looks over hymnals as bait to ease us back to nature and simpler times. "River Of Orchids" calls for cars to be abandoned and highways to be replaced with six lanes of flora. Pretty anomalous in an era when most of us can't go a day without checking our e-mail, but great music nonetheless. Bassist Colin Moulding's songs ... well, they're amusing in the British music hall mode, and sung with gusto, but I'm glad Partridge is doing the bulk.
Apple Venus Volume Two is reportedly on the way, an album of the kind of electrified pop songs avoided here. I can hardly wait.