Album Review: XTC – Drums & Wires (#MWE)

When I was in college radio, every on-air shift I had, I played “Making Plans For Nigel.” I played it so much, in fact, that other students started calling me the Nigel Guy, or kept asking me, what was the “Nigel song” I was always spinning? XTC’s lead single from their commercial breakthrough is, to my ears, a new wave masterpiece. The then-nascent gated reverb drum technique (from engineer Hugh Padgham and producer Steve Lillywhite) guides the listener through an odd tempo and a perspective of the titular Nigel’s parents, who are assuring themselves of his future with British Steel. Not only is the single a staple of the then-burgeoning new wave sound, it is an example of XTC’s catchy, but still quirky, evolution to more straightforward pop songcraft.

Building upon the success of the aimless energy of Go 2, the band hired more conventional guitarist Dave Gregory to replace keyboardist Barry Andrews who had departed after an American tour. After the well-received, less angular one-off single “Life Begins At the Hop,” XTC recorded and produced Drums & Wires in just under a month, making a strategic move for more commercial success while staying in the lane of what the group did best.

The oddness is still there, as on the jittery, yelping, Devo-esque “Helicopter,” but the sound is grounded a bit by deftly structured art-rock tracks like “Day In Day Out” and the skank-worthy bounce of “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty.” The rivalry of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding provides a necessary tension and anxiety to the band’s delivery, and only serves to strengthen the songwriting. The hook-filled “Real by Reel” deals with Partridge’s paranoia of government surveillance, while polyrhythmic transitions keep Moulding’s “That Is the Way” unhinged without going off the rails. Things perk up for the punky “Outside World” before the pleasantly menacing “Scissor Man.” Album finale “Complicated Game” tackles Partridge’s existential malaise with a buzzing ambience provided by Moulding (and an actual electric razor).

With Drums & Wires, XTC aimed for loftier goals and a more structured approach, and the success is evident with every diverse, interesting and fun track. While other new wave peers were coming across as maybe a bit more robotic, XTC stood out with their unabashed English sensibility and left-field pop charm.

Score: 9/10

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