Common knowledge will have you believe that the three prior XTC albums, White Music, Go2 and Drums & Wires are merely loud, noisy and somewhat misguided attempts to fuse the spirit of punk with a more catchy pop sound, and that it is this album, Black Sea, in which the band finally succeeded in pulling off such an experiment. This is, of course, somewhat untrue, with all three of those albums featuring songs that stand as worthy additions to the XTC back-catalogue, as well as working as important musical building blocks that would go towards developing the sound of this. At any rate, Black Sea remains the best introduction to the style of XTC, as well as standing, in my opinion at least, as the very best album of their early career.
Unlike later period releases, such as The Big Express & Skylarking, early XTC are categorised by their jerky-rhythms, anti-establishment lyrics, live-sounding production and serious pop hooks. This album is no exception. In fact, here the formula is intensified through the impeccable production of Steve Lillywhite, who draws out the very best from each member of the band, making the drums sound loud and fierce, the bass echoing and rhythmic, whilst the guitars come at you from both speakers to create a angular, two-pronged attack. If you'd ever wondered what the Talking Heads would have sounded like if they'd formed in Swindon and emerged from the UK punk scene, then look no further than this. The album opens with one of the band's very best songs, Respectable Street, which is possibly my favourite Black Sea track and is fairly representative of the style and sound of the album as a whole... meaning, if you like this, you'll no doubt love the rest.
The majority of the songs are written by Andy Partridge (with the exception of Generals & Majors and Love at First sight, both of which were penned by Colin Moulding) so the range of ideas and subject matter is pretty eclectic, moving from topical, proto-political tracks like Living Through Another Cuba and Towers of London, to more personal or social pieces like the abovementioned Respectable Street, Rocket From a Bottle and the barmy Burning with Optimism's Flames, in which Andy is notably exasperated as he tries to pack in more lyrics than the melody will allow. The style sticks fairly closely to that angular, bouncy post-punk pop style, elaborated on by later Banshee's records and even some tracks by the Cure, but also has similarities with early Elvis Costello (particularly albums like This Year's Model, Armed Forces and Trust), and should definitely be listened to by fans of current media-darlings Franz Ferdinand, who've pretty much pilfered from this and many other albums of it's era in the search of rhythm, iconography and hooks (as did certain Blur tracks from the mid-to-late 90's).
This re-mastered edition elevates the sound and overall production quality even more, making that live-sound sound even livelier, but still maintaining the subtle layering of instrumentation... whilst the addition of bonus tracks (including the gloomy & atmospheric synth-led piece The Somnambulist) add value for money, as well as offering a hint of the more 'studio' sounding, produced albums that would follow. From this, XTC would release the slightly over-long but still utterly worthwhile double-album English Settlement, before problems with the band and Partridge would lead to live-retirement and the creation of more sombre and delicate records like Mummer and Skylarking and then the trek into psychedelic pastiche with their altar-egos, The Dukes of Stratosphere. However, it is Black Sea that remains without question, the pinnacle of their early career, as well as featuring as one of the very best albums of the 80's in general.