Tuesday, January 02, 2007

"Senses Working Overtime" / XTC

I suppose I should be upset that I never heard anything by XTC when it was first released. Let me see, 1982 -- New Wave had distanced itself from punk, and the Talking Heads' Remain in Light, Blondie's Eat to the Beat, and the B-52s' Wild Planet were still getting heavy rotation on my turntable. Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom and Joe Jackson's Night and Day had crossed the ocean for me, so why not this album, English Settlement? Even the Jam and The Specials and Squeeze and The English Beat got enough airplay over here for me to find out about them, but XTC? Nada. Niente.

I'm not complaining, though; it's a kick to find out about this band now and have a dozen albums stockpiled to discover all at once. This is bright, dense pop music, the arrangements complex and witty, the lyrics cryptic and allusive -- I like having it swirl around in my brain, taking it in on several levels at once. That's why I especially like this tune, "Senses Working Overtime" -- a song about sensory overload should have a sort of fragmented Cubist logic, don't you think? That plus a good bashing drumbeat, windmill guitar strums, and slightly off-kilter vocals.

Here are just a few of the images that flicker through this song: "the clouds are whey," "sun is pie," "night fights day," "the sky will cry jewels for the thirsty." The world is described as "football shaped" when the singer wants to kick it out into space, but it's "biscuit shaped" when he wants to "feed my face." (An English football, of course, and an English biscuit.) Sometimes words are yoked together for no other reason than alliteration, scansion, or vowel play -- like in this verse: "Birds might fall from black skies / And bullies might give you black eyes / And buses might skid on black ice." Don't get hung up on making sense of it; it's all about those line endings. Hey, if Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot could get away with it, why not Andy Partridge?

In those cryptic verses, chords and keys shift constantly, uneasily; it's satisfying, then, to finally land in the chorus, as voices and drums come together to whack out an irresistible singalong countdown: "I've got one, two, three, four, five! /Senses working overtime / Trying to take this all in, I've got / One, two, three, four, five! / Senses working overtime, /Trying to taste the difference 'tween a lemon and a lime / Pain and pleasure and the church bells softly chime...." And yes, there's a little bell on the word "chime." The more you listen to this stuff, the more you pick up those obsessive details, the weird sound effects thrown in here and there. All right, so it's a bit arty -- but it's also got a good beat and you can dance to it. Ecstatically.


Julie Duchaine said...

One of my favorite pop songs of all time. When Partridge sings "but to me it's very beau-it-tu-ful- strikingly beautiful," I can only agree.

Anonymous said...

What a great blog Holly! I've heard some of these tunes and I appreciate your writing about them.

"Senses" is a classic and now that songs' in my head!

Look forward to reading more. BTW, I'm not sure how difficult it would be, but there may be a way to post mp3's here? It would go nice with your cool writeups.

Keep up the good work.