By the time XTC’s The Big Express was released, I was already a fan, chomping at the bit to absorb all of their catalog to see if it was as good as
Black Sea or English Settlement. The trouble was,
their records were not always available in my neck of the woods, so a rare
visit to a Tower Records presented me with a chance to get The Big Express (albeit on a pricey Virgin import) as well as score
a cheap cut-out of the band’s second release, Go 2.
It would take me all of the way back to Iowa to listen to it-cd players still weren’t readily available-and it would take me even longer to get used to the record’s polished production and the fact that drummer Terry Chambers had left the fold and was replaced by a dude who didn’t even get membership privileges.
Not that the album proceeding this one was a drum pounding effort (which may explain why Chambers left) but The Big Express was being billed as a return to form and a polar opposite of the soft arrangements that wrecked Mummer.
Sonically, The Big Express is a harder album that its predecessor, but not in the drums and wires way of XTC of old. While the arrangements may be a tad heavier-and heavy handed in some cases-this is still a record of enormous pop zeal and quirky arrangements just like in years past.
The album title and a few tracks suggest an almost steampunk approach to the lyrical content, with references to trains, industrial centers, and blue collar dreaming. What it doesn’t hint at are the nearly embarrassing references to the cold war and the continuous fear of nuclear annihilation. It’s here that Andy Partridge gets a bit preachy, claiming concern for the kids while lambasting the parents for not doing enough to change the course of nuclear proliferation.
In “This World Over,” he tells the story about a father taking the kids on a hike of
rubble-supposedly the result of war-and fielding questions about “What was London like?”
In “Reign Of Blows,” he states that “Joe Stalin looks just like Uncle Sam,” never mind the chord progression sounds like a Rolling Stones outtake, complete with some pretty tepid harmonica work.
When he lays off the preachy politics, Partridge scores easily. On the tremendous. “You’re The Wish You Are I Had” he recalls XTC’s wonderful sense of playfulness within the melodies. Andy must have worked himself into hyperventilation spitting out the steam engine tempo of the closer “Train Running Low On Soul Coal,” furthering the tradition of the band’s tradition of ending things on a strong note.
Guitarist Dave Gregory and Colin Moulding are critical in keeping The Big Express from running off the rails thanks to some top notch performances, including three positively great tunes from Moulding. While Partridge make consistently produce some of XTC’s best closing moments, Moulding shines with his opener “Wake Up” and he displays talent beyond his own pop upbringings with the jazzy “I Remember The Sun,” complete with stand up bass and Gregory’s fretwork.
While certainly not one of the band’s required listening efforts, The Big Express does point the ship in the right direction once again, paving the way for even more rewarding records in their impressive catalog.