In the latter half of the 80s the combined successes of Skylarking and Oranges & Lemons had saved XTC and they had re-established themselves as mature and intelligent pop-rockers that could appeal to all ages. The conceptual grandeur of Skylarking had initially been a commercial failure, but a freak hit on American College Radio with b-side “Dear God” had found them gain unexpected popularity Stateside and increased interest here in the UK, so sales of the album started to gain momentum, but not enough for it to actually chart higher than number 90. They followed this unexpected success up with the day-glo psychedelic pop of Oranges & Lemons, which found their sound polished and their sales healthy. Well healthy in XTC terms. That is to say it got within the top thirty of the album chart here in the UK. XTC were on the up again commercially and to celebrate they limbered up to make the most British album of their career. An album that would combine pure pop, lush sounds, the loamy textures of English Settlement and a sliver of very English humour. This was Nonsuch and it remains one of the great forgotten albums of all time.
XTC are one of those odd bands that defied convention and actually got better as time went on. Usually a band make a big splash at the start of their career and continue to make continually less impressive albums as their career progresses. XTC did it the other way round, they started off as a reasonably good power-pop act and actually steadily improved over time. True, there was a slight stumble with Mummer and The Big Express, but they had reached incredible creative heights with Skylarking and by the time of Nonsuch they had reached a point where they had outlasted almost all of their peers and were still making music at least as good as what had released before. Andy Partridge was still at his height as a songwriter, Colin Moulding was gaining confidence and penning gems like “Bungalow” and Dave Gregory’s guitar and keyboard work was giving the whole band a musical maturity which marked them as a band of rare quality.
The strength of Nonsuch is in the songs, with at least half of the album made up of potential singles, be they uptempo numbers like “Dear Madam Barnum”, slightly sinister like “Crocodile” and “That Wave”, or reflective like “Humble Daisy”. Other songs are just wonderfully English, such as “Holly Up On Poppy”, a song about Partridge’s young daughter on her first rocking horse (not about opiates as many had assumed), a comment on the peculiarly British habit of saving up to invest in a retirement property in “Bungalow”, the stately “Rook”, the joyous pop of “Then She Appeared” and the celebration of life that is “Omnibus”. Then of course there are the singles, “The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead”, a modern fable of one man’s stand against the establishment, “The Disappointed” (their first top 40 single for over a decade) is one of my all time favourite songs and the luxurious “Wrapped In Grey” should have been a big hit single, if their record label hadn’t scrapped it at the last minute, which was what finally convinced XTC to down tools for most of the 90s.
Despite it equalling Oranges & Lemons’ chart success Nonsuch has become increasingly overlooked as a key album in XTC’s career, as it wasn’t cited as an influence on the second wave of Brit-pop that reached its crescendo in the middle of the last decade, not was it hailed by the more heavyweight music press in the same way that Skylarking, and to a lesser extent Oranges & Lemons were. For years the only copies of Nonsuch available in the UK were as a part of a substantial remaster and reissue programme by their former record label. As good as the album sounded the record label stuffed up as they not only comically scaled down the printed lyrics so much that they were rendered unreadable, but they made a serious printing error on the rear artwork which left a third of the artwork either obscured or totally omitted. The record label seemingly put their hands up in recognition of the foul-up, but they did nothing to rectify the error after the initial issues.
Although it doesn’t have the conceptual sweep of Skylarking, Nonsuch finds XTC at a pinnacle both as musicians and songwriters and it’s a real shame that a dispute with their record label put them out of action for the majority of the 90s. If they had continued to plough a similar furrow to this, it’s quite possible that they would have enjoyed a commercial renaissance like Paul Weller did at the height of Brit-pop.
While Nonsuch has never enjoyed the sycophantic praise smothered over it by lesser acts as their early albums have, or enjoyed the press recognition of being a lost classic in the same way that Skylarking has, it remains one of XTC’s most well-rounded and broad albums. Over two decades on from its original release Nonsuch finally seems to be getting the recognition it deserves for being not only a great XTC album, but one of the finest British pop albums of the 90s. Oddly enough there seems to be a major reissue of it due in the not too distant future, as apparently Steven Wilson of Procupine Tree fame has been following his success of doing similar work for the likes of prog rock acts like King Crimson and Yes, by working on a full bells and whistles version of Nonsuch which will apparently boast 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound mixes from the original analogue tapes for a deluxe CD and Blu-ray release. It all sounds wonderful of course, but I’d be happy enough if they just do a straight reissue without stuffing up the artwork.