Oranges and Lemons is an album that has spent the twenty six years since its release trying to put behind it the fans disappointment that it wasn’t as good as Skylarking. The thing is, there are precious few albums as good as XTC’s 1986 masterpiece, so anyone expecting Partridge, Moulding and Gregory to release something better as a follow up were always going to be disappointed. Some fans have tried to justify their disappointment by saying they don’t like the production of Oranges and Lemons because it dates the album. Okay, so name me one other album from 1989 that sounds like Oranges and Lemons… You can’t can you, and that’s because producer Paul Fox actually did a really good job at capturing the band’s clear and bright sound. Others have claimed that the album artwork puts them off because it’s too ‘cartoony’, which is a flimsy excuse at best. The cover may not be iconic, but it’s a lovely piece of illustration which works so much better in the original vinyl format.
Truth be told, Oranges and Lemons is a great album recorded by a band firing on all creative cylinders, and enjoying a modest resurgence in their commercial fortunes. From the hectic brilliance of “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, to the gently simmering “Cynical Days”, it’s a pleasingly varied release which finds both Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding at the height of their powers as songwriters. Dave Gregory isn’t exactly slouching either, as his guitar work is as gorgeously fluid as ever and he continues to hit new heights as an arranger.
As varied as the material is, it’s never less than interesting. Songs like “Merely a Man”, “King for a Day” and the celebratory “Pink Thing” are heartwarming slices of pure pop, “Poor Skeleton Steps Out” has one of the band’s most arresting percussion tracks and “The Loving” may be one of the greatest should-have-been hit singles XTC ever recorded. Best of all though is “The Mayor of Simpleton”. Big on pop bounce and chorus, “The Mayor of Simpleton” is one of the stand out moments of a long career not short on brilliance, with Moulding’s bass line being one of the most deceptively mind-bending in the history of rock music. Anyone criticising Oranges and Lemons for being a flimsy disappointment following Skylarking just needs to hear “The Mayor of Simpleton” before rapidly reassessing their statement.
The album closes with “Chalkhills and Children”, one of the most elegantly constructed of all XTC tunes, and one that once again reminds the listener that on his day, very few of their contemporaries could match XTC for hands down songwriting brilliance.
For too long Oranges and Lemons has been unfairly dismissed as a relatively disposable XTC album, when in fact it is just the inevitable subtle dip between two of their very best albums. While most would argue that both Skylarking and Nonsuch are generally superior albums, the invigorating pop brilliance on display throughout Oranges and Lemons cannot be denied.