Garden of Earthly Delights: An XTC Celebration

“Garden of Earthly Delights: An XTC Celebration” is available from Futureman Records.

“Tribute albums” are the ultimate roll of the dice. Artists seeking a little extra exposure can play it safe and contribute a track to yet another Beatles covers album, they can go with what is mainstream and well-known and well loved. It’s a low-risk proposition that usually results in revenue and airplay just as easily as it comes up short on insight and inspiration.

There’s also another path, and it’s the one taken by this album. Perhaps the reason why this album is subtitled “An XTC Celebration” (rather than an XTC “tribute”) is that it’s not a history lesson, it’s not a eulogy, it’s a true celebration of a band that may no longer exist but is living and breathing daily in the scores of artists who were profoundly influenced by their work.

To paraphrase a very old joke, if you can sum up XTC in a couple of paragraphs, you’ve never heard XTC.

It’s often a badge of honor to proclaim that an artist transcends genres and “labels.” But in the case of XTC. it’s the gospel truth. Sure, they dealt in psychedelia and power pop and a number of other realms, but they swore allegiance to none, they went wherever the music took them. They had singles, but they were far from a “singles band.” The closest touchstone is The Beatles in their Revolver period, where they abandoned touring and became a studio-only unit, crafting albums that were sometimes tightly and other times loosely bound by a concept or overall vibe. The same held true for XTC. The only way to really “understand” the band is to hear it all, and chances are good that after that exercise, you’ll still be trying to process the scope of their creativity.

“Garden of Earthly Delights” is beautifully packaged, lovingly crafted, and includes a whopping 36 tracks on the double CD, and an additional 17 if you purchase the Digital Download. For the most part, these are deep album tracks, not the ones that would be most immediately recognized by fans who are casually aware of the band via MTV or 80s FM radio.

One of the most stunning examples of this approach is Gretchen’s Wheel’s cover of “The Last Balloon,” a track from Apple Venus Volume 1. This was the band’s final album (originally conceived as a double album, and ultimately split into “Volume 1″ and Volume 2”), with guitarist and vocalist Andy Partridge and bassist and singer Colin Moulding as the sole remaining members. Studio musicians, including The Tubes’ Prairie Prince on drums, rounded out the band. The original is a wistful, melancholy reflection, and the Gretchen’s Wheel version retains all of that. while adding a beautiful, dramatic, volume-enhanced element. It’s unexpected, as the song progresses much like the original, and then “boom,” there is is, slipping back into the melancholy, coming back for another round of dazzling intensity.

That’s the magic of the album…each of the artists who participated in the project did so with the same level of commitment and creativity that goes into their own music. It’s not an album of faithful covers…it’s an album from a diverse and gifted collective of artists who share what each song meant to them. The songs aren’t “reinventions,” they’re closer to expansions of what was already there, with added nuance, more colors added to the sonic palette. Some add, some go for a more minimalist approach, but every track rings true to the spiritual core of XTC.

Readers of this Website and listeners of the There Once Was A Note radio show know that I reject the notion of “Best Of” lists and year-end recaps of the “best” albums of the year. Someone always gets left out, and I don’t pit one artist against another in the name of an ultimately subjective “award” from me. That said, this absolutely IS one of the best albums of 2020, perhaps THE best, and you WILL see it on every year-end list that IS published this year. An absolute triumph, a labor of love from all involved, and an absolutely essential addition to your music collection.