Listen to this track by tri-cornered melancholically optimistic pop concern XTC. It’s “Wrapped In Grey”, a should-have-been hit single as taken from the band’s 1992 double-LP Nonsuch.
The song displays writer/singer/guitarist Andy Partridge’s affinity for Brian Wilsonesque pop confectionary, and also (for those in the know) the influence of Judee Sill, which slowly came to the fore as XTC put out more and more bucolic and elegantly arranged albums. This mix of influences creates a sort of partly-sunny effect, with the Brian Wilson influence providing the endless summery vibe to contrast with Judee Sill’s influence that suggests hopefulness in the presence of gathering gloom. But, like the work of both, it’s Partridge’s own penchant for the childlike and the innocent that really brings this song to life, parrots and lemurs and all.
For all of this song’s defiant optimism, which is yet another selling point, there is a certain level of irony to be appreciated when comparing the tone and tenor of this song to the situation in which it was recorded and released. By the time the record came out, the band were in the throes of a conflict with their record company, Virgin, who cancelled this very song as a single against Partridge’s wishes. This led the band as a whole to take some out of the ordinary, and even drastic, steps in response.
By this stage in their recording career, XTC had yet to have the hit record that their label expected of them. This was sand in the vaseline to the relationship between band and label since 1986’s Skylarking at least. Part of this was down to the fact that the band had given up touring by 1982, which meant that marketing XTC had to have been more challenging for the label. The burden on them to sell records by a studio-bound band was pretty heavy as a result, and more so than usual. To complicate things further, there were problems at the production and post-production stages of Nonsuch which frustrated all parties involved. Partridge suffered a bout of writer’s block around this time, too. Talk about adding insult to injury!
As usual, this album was a triumph critically speaking when it was released in the spring of 1992. But from the label’s point of view, I suppose they stuck to the simple principle that reviews don’t necessarily shift units. The lack of label support as the band saw it, and the unilateral cancellation of “Wrapped in Grey” as a single because they felt that they couldn’t sell it was the last straw for XTC. With the song’s contents in mind, the irony should be lost on no one. After this record’s release, XTC went on strike to starve Virgin of new work until the label agreed to release them from their contract, which they eventually did. Struggles to regain control over the XTC catalog on Partridges’s part from there would endure for many years. Such was the state of things at the tail-end of an era in the music industry when the label held most of the cards, and when there was a single channel to market when it came to making money as a pop group.
With that in mind, it’s ultimately more meaningful to cast the thematic net presented in this song much, much wider beyond any specific situations that arose around its creation and release. “Wrapped in Grey” isn’t strictly about a bid for artistic freedom away from commercial obligations in any case. It’s about embracing the freedom to express ourselves as individuals, and to cast aside any hesitations to do so for fear of being accused of being childish, or impractical. “Wrapped in Grey” is about not feeling silly about the flights of fancy on which our own imaginations take us even as grown-ups, and that it’s this freedom that adds colour to life that is otherwise staid and narrow in its expectations of what adulthood should be. It’s an invitation to remain childlike instead no matter how old we get, which is an ongoing theme in XTC’s catalog. Most of all, this song serves to remind us that the reason we love pop music so much is that even when it’s commenting on the state of the world, there’s always that essential element that makes music itself a product of abject wonder. It’s like a miracle.
Consider this, Good People. On one level, the act of writing a song is a completely irrational thing to do. A songwriter has a silly idea, and takes it to a band. They pluck, bang, and wail it into shape. Suddenly, there’s something in the world that didn’t exist before, whatever it is. And the best of it goes well beyond the sum of its parts and the times in which it was created to capture the imaginations of an audience. This goes on for decades sometimes, and even for centuries after it was created. Many who hear it begin to get silly ideas of their own and the whole thing starts all over again.
What’s the point of this exchange, anyway? The only answer that makes sense is this; it’s the act of creation itself and the intention to share what comes out of it that brings the magic and puts it into an otherwise grey world. This, along with the added hope that one creative act can inspire other acts similar to it. The wonder and hope found in all of that adds ineffable dimension to our lives, filling a need deep within us that we often can’t explain even if we feel moved to try. It makes life worth living.
Music and all other art forms bind the chapters of our lives together, helping to lend us a sense of continuity to our existence that we also can’t fully explain. Music, stories, and all art forms help us to string together coherent narratives out of the otherwise chaotic chains of cause and effect, adding splashes of colour to our world for ourselves and for others, too. Inside each of us is a whole universe to explore, shaped by our unique experiences. The products of our imaginations also connect us as a civilization, showing us how many things we have in common with each other. They become the great unifying agents that help us feel less alone. We need them.
So, if you’ve got unconscious grotesques in your heart, why not let some out for all the world to see and share while you’re able?
Whether a company can sell them is beside the point, ultimately.
XTC broke up officially in 2006.
You can follow Andy Partridge on Twitter at @XTCfans.
You can also read about the band’s struggles with their label, among other things, by reading this 1998 article from The Independent.
For those of you who love to rank things (I know you’re out there!) check out this list of all 15 XTC records (including one from Dukes of Stratosphear) ranked from worst to least at Stereogum.
FINALLY, do check out this episode of the Deeper Cuts podcast in which I, and my two friends Graeme and Shannon, talk about the follow up to Nonsuch, the 1999 XTC record Apple Venus, Vol. 1.