Sunday, September 27, 2009

Birth to Death and Back Again in 18 Andy Partridge Songs

My single favorite recording to be released in the 2000's wasn't created during this barren decade, but slightly before the end of the millennium. Originally conceived and recorded as a triumphant double-LP return, XTC's masterful display of brute songwriting force, Apple Venus, was pointlessly broken up into two separate CD's (Apple Venus, Part One and Wasp Star: Apple Venus, Part Two) by an evil and shortsighted record company. A few years later, singer/guitarist/genius Andy Partridge issued a boxed set of all the songs from the two records (and three others) on 13 45's through his personal Idea label. This is a truly wonderful way to present the material, because the listener can follow his whims and go in different directions each time he chooses to take the Apple Vinyls out of the box.

I've written and have been working in the last year on a rock opera, a set of fifteen songs (some of which are themselves constructed from bits and pieces of smaller tunes) and thinking about the best way to order and present those songs has led me back to Apple Venus once again. Was Partridge really trying to write a gigantic song cycle? The first volume half-suggests it, but the musical variety and self-contained songs of Wasp Star were universally received as "the songs that didn't fit the first one." Trying by myself to tell a linear story by playing Partridge's tunes from the seven-inches in a totally new order, I think I've come up with a version that's just as much a concept album as Quadrophenia or Zen Arcade.

Two notes: I didn't use any of Colin Moulding's songs from the Apple Venus project, but not because they're poor or of lesser quality than Partridge's. XTC's bassist and second songwriter from the beginning, Moulding is a totally different composer qualitatively from his bandmate and always has been. They've been able to work in tandem for 30 years because each has qualities the other doesn't and they recognize and profit from that. I tried at first to use all of Moulding's tunes but I realized that they're all from the perspective of a middle-aged man. There's nothing wrong with that ("Boarded Up" is one of the highlights of the whole set) but Partridge, whether he had a specific running order in mind or not, was consciously writing tunes set all throughout a life's intellectual and spiritual development. Moulding's stuff would all have to come in a row two-thirds of the way through and that would totally wreck the flow (although it has long been XTC practice to give Colin a chunk of a side here and there and Partridge the rest of the space). I also didn't know what the heck to do with "Standing in for Joe," which is a good song but a totally self-contained story, a one-act play if you like.

And also: There is a ton of XTC analysis out there on the web if you go looking for it; they're a band that invites obsession. However, all of these interpretations are my own. The only references I used for this project were the allmusic pages for Volume One and Volume Two, and other sites of its ilk, and one article from XTC's MySpace blog which I scanned only to properly credit a guest musician, not for analysis.

0. "Spiral"
One of the three songs that doesn't appear on the CD versions, the only one of those rarities that isn't a Colin Moulding throwaway. Sort of a palate-cleanser, it's a very straightforward Andy Partridge song about the pleasures of 7" singles. Unlike nearly all of the other songs in the project, it doesn't have a phases-of-life theme. So I'll put it first as a kind of overture, the first song as a celebration of the very act of beginning to listen to a record. "Every day I play my favorite 45's, [they] help me to climb."

1. "Playground"
Pretty obviously a song about childhood, and the opening track on Wasp Star. Partridge isn't writing about actual children here, but how the terror of being constantly judged and never completely in control follows us our whole lives. Most of his other songs from the project (and many of Moulding's) discuss various coping strategies for this paranoia. "Never stop rehearsing for the big square world."

2. "Knights in Shining Karma"
This is a pretty abstract lyric, but if you're operating on the assumption that there is a Seven Ages of Man concept at work here, you could take this as a vastly mellower "Chartered Trips," or "She's Leaving Home," if you like. The "knights" are parents/authority figures, who make life easier for a time but ultimately defeat self-realization. "Poach your dreams to ash."

3. "Greenman"
I'm vaguely following the sequence of Part One here, but that record always seemed like an incomplete concept album anyway. "Greenman" posits an organizing principle outside that of the nuclear family: specifically, that of environmentalism/earth goddess-worship. One lyric in particular really helps it flow out of the last two: "You know for millions of years he has been your father." Note the way the "Greenman" ranks our putative main character's literal father in seniority. This song relates just as much to freshman year as J Church's great "Ivy League College."

4. "River of Orchids"
The opening piece to Part One, but I think it was placed there because it's the most stark departure from XTC's oeuvre and not necessarily because it's the beginning of the story. After the mystical revelation of "Greenman," our protagonist feels the call to action, but not really in a realistic or constructive way. It's an anti-technology rant, something Partridge does four times a record at minimum, but its cyclical melody and puzzle-box lyrics (which sometimes even undermine the narrator: "Just like a mad dog you're chasing your tail in a circle") suggest the inchoate fury of college-aged activism. And also there's the curious suggestion of a deeper revelation being buried in the noise and anger: "I had a dream where a chorus reduced to a faucet."

5. "I'd Like That"
Also follows "River of Orchids" on the original CD sequence. Enter the love interest! This song has a totally different subtext if you carry over the environmental awareness theme from "Greenman" and "River of Orchids," because of the way Andy sings "Each flame would make me grow up really high, like a really high thing." I never really thought of it as a pot reference before, and I still don't know if it's intentional, but it fits.

6. "My Brown Guitar"
The love affair develops. "We can play at being lovers." Hippie college guy writes a song for his lady!

7. "Easter Theatre"
Another very, very abstract composition, but I think that looking for overall order here has given me a new insight into what it was Partridge was on about for this song. If we assume our young hero's romantic interest shares his political conviction ("I'd Like That" with its pastoral imagery suggests it), we can easily imagine his consciousness expanding to embrace one more viewpoint than his own -- and his self-definition evolving from accomplishing his grand plans for global change on his own to doing it in partnership. I don't think "Easter Theatre" is at all about first love, it's less eros and more of the acknowledgement of the possibility of assuring one's own intellectual immortality by finding an ideological partner and imposing your shared views on your offspring. This is a flawed idea, of course, given that the hero has only just rejected the direction of his own parents, but the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at once with conviction is what young adulthood is all about. "Now the son has died, the father can be born."

8. "Stupidly Happy"
One of the nods on Part Two to XTC's herky-jerky origins, except with a lyric that recalls the Dukes of Stratosphear side project in Partridge's efforts to write a song in a certain style rather than following his own weird instincts. It's a much deeper song coming in this sequence, because rather than a pretty shallow pop exercise, it represents the narrator losing sight of his original fierce political stance to selfishly wallow in the company of his lover. This also explains why Partridge is clumsier and less specific in his word choices, something that has to be deliberate because Andy Partridge never does anything by accident. In isolation, the song is an apology for intellectual laziness. As part of a song cycle, it's a turning point. "Stupidly happy like the words to that song."

9. "Wounded Horse"
Pretty straightforward cheatin' woman song. Fits here especially well because the singer isn't self-aware enough to imagine the possibility of his perfect relationship ever breaking down, and Partridge delivers it in a woozy voice like a kid drunk and sobbing. It doesn't have anything to do with the concept album idea, but I love the clip-clopping percussion on this song completely out of proportion to its very minor cleverness. I also like the way that the narrator loses his center and his confidence in his other beliefs: "I bit out my own tongue like a wounded horse when I found out you'd been writing another man." And the way Moulding's second vocal part functions like a supportive chorus of drinking buddies.

10. "Your Dictionary"
Rock bottom! This is just about the most vicious song Andy Partridge has ever written, and that's saying something. It sticks out like a sore thumb on Apple Venus Part One because it's so unshaded; the other tunes on that CD are hardly optimistic but they're not without nuance. In my reconstituted running order, "Your Dictionary" has a totally different resonance, because it's not just a personal attack, it serves additionally as a rejection of the ideals that brought our couple together to begin with. "Black on black, a guidebook for the blind. Now that I can't see, my eyes won't weep. Now that I can hear, your song sounds cheap." The way "Your Dictionary" suddenly changes for a lushly harmonized coda never made sense before, but rather than an ironic punchline, I can hear it now as the beginning of the healing process and the first step towards a more mature worldview.

11. "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love"
Not a simple song by any means, despite its hooks. "I'm the Man" works on many levels all by itself, but it has a sweet duality as the first song of the second act of this imaginary rock opera. Partridge could be saying that love is a lie and there's just no point to it, but he also might be suggesting that what his character's real problem is is that he's just never experienced real love, being too self-centered and too concerned with seeing his own worldview reflected back to him in his partners. He's absolutely suggesting that modern society makes real love incredibly difficult if not impossible. "If you never ever use it, you know you're going to lose it."

12. "The Wheel and the Maypole"
An almost totally impenetrable song, really a medley of two numbers (a common concept album device). I had to read the lyrics over for quite some time tonight, and I've listened to this song in its place in the original running order many, many times over. What threw me for a time is the fact that Partridge sings "if the pot won't hold our love," as if he's singing to a lover, but that's not what he's on about at all. He's singing to the land. After the chorus, he adds: "Goes the wheel." His protagonist has abandoned society (as the "Man Who Murdered Love," what choice did he have?) and he's imagining that his plow is singing to him, probably after working out in the sun for too long. Contemplating his very tiny place in the overall scheme of things, the "Maypole" section has the singer reconsidering his lost relationship: "What made me think we'd last forever? Was I so naive?" The song ends with Moulding reprising the chorus from "The Wheel" in a round with Partridge singing "Maypole, the ties that bind you will unwind to free me one day." What does this mean? My guess is that the singer feels imprisoned between his connection to the earth and the compromises he must make in order to reintegrate into civilized society. No so long ago he was screaming "Push your car from the road." But he feels to get married, get a real job instead of subsistence farming, to do what's necessary to be a modern human, is beyond his reach. The maypole, a manmade device constructed solely for the purpose of celebrating nature, is a metaphor for the balance we must strike between living in harmony with the planet and existing in a technological society.

13. "Church of Women"
First let me mention that I adore this song; it's my favorite on the whole Apple Venus set which means it's in the running for my favorite XTC song ever. Just ridiculous melodies, and Andy's kind of jokey, warbled singing on the verses only serves to make the monster chorus and perfect trumpet and electric guitar overdubs all the more cathartic. In the grander scheme of things, our protagonist is beginning to mature enough to see a way to return to the fold. It's not all humans he has such a problem with, it's the destructive and selfish tendencies of men. Partridge has long had a kind of disgusted attitude towards his own gender, sometimes embarrassingly so ("Pink Thing") but although "Church of Women" could be misread as longing for a sex change I think his heart's in the right place, and in this running order any stirring of positive feeling for others counts as narrative progress. "Let's put things right, let's multiply the loves and kisses 'til we have enough to love and eat together."

14. "Harvest Festival"
We're heading into the homestretch now. The rest of the story is already set up: Having accepted in theory the possibility of loving again, the narrator has to actually meet somebody. First he must find closure from the failed relationship that led him to excuse himself from society in the first place. This is the most straightforward non-Moulding song on either of the original albums. I don't need to break it down because all Partridge does is tell the story: "We all grew and we got screwed and cut and nailed, then out of nowhere invitation in gold pen.... See that you two got married and I wish you well.... What was best of all was the longing look you gave me, more than enough to keep me fed all year."

15. "I Can't Own Her"
We're skipping way ahead here, I guess, because this song is sung from the perspective of the richest man in town. Maybe our Thoreau-esque main character found oil on his beet farm or something. More likely, he came back to society to be nearer his unavailable but still longed-for old lover and made something out of himself, having had time to perfect his plowing techniques and work ethic during his hermit years. This song's bittersweet mood suits the autumnal point in life from which our hero must be speaking by now. There's also another undercurrent that's subtle but the theme of the entire piece, not "I Can't Own Her" but the whole song cycle. Only in realizing that he can't possess another person, only share space with them, has our eternal teenager reached the level of emotional maturity necessary for genuine lasting love. The song shows him still struggling with the concept: "And when I say I can't own her I don't mean to buy her, it's nothing at all to do with money. I simply want her in my arms forever more, is that an odd request?" But by the end he's getting the picture: "I may as well wish for the moon in hand."

16. "You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful"
Another classic song, one that deserves a cover sung by a male singer with a great falsetto (maybe me!) and one that has completely different meaning coming where I've put it in the running order. Having resigned himself to the fact that his lost love will never again be his, our storyteller resolves to be the best friend to her that he can. Then her husband leaves. Or dies! Partridge's male character having done all the thinking and growing he has in the intervening years, the possibility of full reconciliation is finally at hand. But it's a process! "We see flying saucers, flying cups, and flying plates, and as we trip down lovers' lane we sometimes bump into the gate. And I know thunder in your head can still reverberate. But no matter what the weather, you and the clouds will still be beautiful. So let it rain." The rain is just a nonspecific image in the song as it appears on Wasp Star, but in this context it's the departure of the intervening spouse. The ninth that Moulding sings in the harmony at the end of this tune ("so let it... rain") bowls me over every time.

17. "We're All Light"
The big finale, lovers reunited at last! "We're All Light" is the only song from Apple Venus that discusses mature, stable love, if somewhat glibly in its original setting. As the payoff to a long journey, it achieves a new luster, Partridge's gleeful good humor well-earned after an epic spiritual quest. And importantly, it shows the hero reconciling his place in society with his place in the universe (even if he cribbed his philosophy from "a bumper sticker someplace"). Hero and heroine are still obligated to bend to outside influences at times ("they're paging you in reception," which is perhaps a reference to the birth of a grandchild) but they're happy after their own fashion ("I won't take from you what you can't take from me"). Influenced by pragmatism and perhaps a bit of eastern religion, Partridge no longer feels guilty about seeing to his own happiness while being unable to mend all suffering elsewhere. "Don't you know in this new dark age, we're all light."

18. "The Last Balloon"
And this one's about death. Fantastic mournful trumpet solo on this song (by Guy Barker) that reminds me of Chet Baker's solo on Elvis Costello's "Shipbuilding." Baker was near death at that point, as the kind of terrifying photo of him in the otherwise high new wave Punch the Clock liners exhibits. Kind of an odd note to end on, as Partridge is envisioning all of the women and children of the world leaving for another plane of existence, as the men are too weighed down by their petty concerns to take flight. After the triumph of the last several songs I'm not sure whether I like it here or not. But I can't imagine where else to put it; before I even started thinking about what the first track would be I knew "Last Balloon" would have to be at the end. Does it mean that ultimately the narrator fell short of the final stage of maturity and watched his lost-and-then-found-again wife die with no hope in his heart that he would see her again? Well, Partridge is an avowed atheist so I'm not sure that intention would ever enter into his mind. I think it's more of an eastern thing -- the lover moves on to the next emanation, but the male protagonist must die, be born again, and live another life more closely in tune with the ethos of the "Church of Women" before their energy patterns will converge again. That's sad and beautiful and hopeful all at once, like Apple Venus as a whole.

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