Thursday, May 6, 2010

Shilling for the Fellow Who Brings the Sheep In

With windows cracking and a roof held together by holes...

One band, two songs, same subject.

XTC's "Love on a Farmboy's Wages" it the rural one -- in which a man who works on the farm (and, sadly, is really great at what he does) prepares to marry his beloved. He wonders how he can provide for his new family, but is ultimately willing to give it a shot. It's a wonderful acoustic song (although a strange and unfortunate choice for a single).

Three years later, XTC was paired with producer Todd Rundgren for Skylarking. Andy Partridge and Todd didn't get along. When the album came out, it sounded odd -- like it was designed to be played in a car going 80 with all the windows open. (And, famously, the oddball hit single "Dear God" wasn't even on the album -- it was a B-side that got all the radio play and forced the record company to pull the album and rerelease it with "Dear God" on Side 2 because there was no room on Side 1, which contained a "suite" of songs about the seasons -- one of Todd's pet ideas.)

Another song from Skylarking that got plenty of radio play was "Earn Enough for Us," seemingly the urban version of "Love on a Farmboy's Wages." But this time, the couple is married and the husband goes off to work every day on a bus, puts up with hurtful comments from his boss, and vows to get another job at night when he learns he's going to be a father. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Back when this record first came out, I thought the two songs told the exact same story.

It wasn't until I listened carefully to Skylarking a few days ago that I realized what "Earn Enough for Us" really is. If anything, it's a sequel. The Farmboy gave up what he was good at to earn more money in the big city, only to discover himself struggling and his wife expecting. But he's still hopeful, he's still willing to do whatever it takes. Unlike Major Tom (who apparently was really just a junkie), the Farmboy has matured and grown into a man who takes his responsibilities seriously -- he's even willing to be in a more radio-friendly song if that's what it takes.

I'm older now and I can see the heroism in the husband's struggle. He's harnessed the hope from the farm, tempered it with realism, and hunkered down to provide for his loved ones. But the Farmboy is never really gone -- and I like to think he's planting a small garden behind that little house, caring for it with love, and knowing it will grow and prosper.

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