Saturday, April 29, 2023

Trying to take this all in

In the still-extraordinary "Senses Working Overtime" XTC celebrates the sublime
In 1974, Annie Dillard published Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. One of the essays in it, "Seeing," astonishes me every time I read it. Essentially about the complacency of those who sacrifice the daily beauties of the world for more pragmatic concerns, "Seeing" is nearly too much with itself— it's so amazed with the world that it tugs at its own seams. As a young girl Dillard used to leave pennies around her neighborhood, giddy at the prospect of someone finding an unbidden gift, a reminder that the universe can surprise. As we grow, Dillard laments, we tend to lose sight, in both the literal and the figurative sense, of the world's astonishing wonders, its daily free gifts. In a particularly moving passage she recounts the knocked-out experiences of a group of previously blind individuals who'd been gifted with the return of their sight. The world became nearly overwhelming to them, and not always in a bad way. The world should overwhelm everyone, every day, Dillard feels.

Near the end of the essay she describes a moment while perched on a log bridge at sunset watching shiners (minnows) feed in the water. "Again and again, one fish, then another, turned for a split second across the current and flash! The sun shot out from its silver side. I couldn’t watch for it. It was always just happening somewhere else, and it drew my vision just as it disappeared: flash, like a sudden dazzle of the thinnest blade, a sparking over a dun and olive ground at chance intervals from every direction." Distracted by pale petals floating from under her feet, she blurred her vision "and gazed towards the brim of my hat"
and saw a new world. I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s tuning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone.
When she sees in this rare manner, Dillard writes, she sees "truly," as a kind of a re-set. Yet she's quick to add that she can’t go out and consciously attempt to see this way. She'll lose her mind. "All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes." The secret of true seeing, she reflects, "is the pearl of great price.... But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought."
The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.
On that afternoon Dillard was returned to her senses. What she was also doing in "Seeing" was glossing a song that she couldn't possibly have heard because it wouldn't be written and recorded for nearly a decade. 


"I thought, 'Well, everyone has five senses, what's great about that? Well, they're not just working, they're going crazy! They're working overtime! They're taking all of life in, and it's too much!' Because life is just too much. It's amazing, you know." That's Andy Partridge, talking to Todd Bernhardt about "Senses Working Overtime," a song from XTC's English Settlement released in 1982. Like "Seeing," this song lifts off the top of my head with each encounter I have with it, still, after forty years of listening. The song's in awe of the world and its ordinary extraordinariness. I'm in awe of the song.

Writing in his small flat above an empty Victorian shop in Swindon, trying to compose the next single for his band, Partridge had Manfred Mann's "5-4-3-2-1" knocking about in his head, loving the way that that song kicks into gear with an instantly catchy, singalong hook. "I thought, 'Okay, 5-4-3-2-1—I'll go 1-2-3-4-5!'"
So, I thought, "5-4-3-2-1 was like a count-down to something, 1-2-3-4-5 is like adding up—what is there five of?".... There are five senses! Right!
Partridge soon had his chorus—"these senses were just going to be going crazy at the fantasticness of the world"—and now he needed a verse. Fooling around on his guitar he landed on a graphic E-flat, the happy accident of having played an E chord wrong. To Partridge the tone sounded Medieval somehow, and he forged ahead, piecing chords together, "and I thought, 'Yeah, this sounds great, it's medieval, it's like pictures from illuminated manuscripts, tilling the soil, and wow, how hard life was in those days'." He envisioned "little figures tilling the land, and cutting hedgerows, and stuff," and hoped to describe "their woes, and their worries, and the things that they'd be singing about—or the things they'd be fantasizing about." He rescued an earlier, abandoned song for chords that helped him join "the moronic backwards Manfred Mann bit" with his Middle Age landscape of toiling workers. 

The Harvesters (1565), Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Partridge also wanted a very English vibe in the song (he tacked on the sound of crows at the end), as well as "plague-ridden backing vocals," what he described to his band and producer Hugh Padgham as the sound of suffering, "wretched land-people noises." ("It's the sort of thing you'd sing under your breath if you were trying to get your plow kick-started on a frosty morning!") At The Manor studio he also prevailed upon XTC drummer Terry Chambers to go a little Medieval himself; Chambers obliged by pulling out a rototom and "a reggae bass-drum thing," Partridge recalls, "an odd little mixture, the reggae one-drop drumming with his foot, combined with 13th-century England with his hand!" Partridge had his song. "And I came up with the words pretty quickly."

The impression at the start is that the song's waking up: a quietly plucked acoustic, a softly struck rototom. The work day begins with a thudding boom of a drum, Colin Moulding's fretless bass line wakes and stretches, getting the kinks out, and as the sun peeks over the horizon an insight arrives as the song's pulse quickens: "All the world is football-shaped / It's just for me to kick in space / And I can see, hear, smell, touch, taste". Trying to take this all in. Like "Seeing," "Senses Working Overtime" nearly comes open at the seams, so in awe of and humbled by the world that it can barely contain itself. 

And in fact, it can't. The bridge is essentially a new song that bursts out of what we've hearing, Partridge dryly singing of natural tragedies, bullying, a bus "skidding on black ice" before admitting that to him it's all "very, very beautiful." The wordless passage that follows is the sound of someone giddily in love with a world that's equally tragic and exquisite, alive in that world with gratitude, in awe of everything. By the time we return to the pre-chorus ("And all the world is football-shaped...") everything's gotten bigger, more dimensional. I love that Partridge wrote "Senses Working Overtime" under the influence of Manfred Mann "5-4-3-2-1," which was used as the theme song for Ready Steady Go, the U.K television show that aired on Friday nights, heralding the weekend and its onrushing of sensations and stimuli.

Partridge has written often about ordinary folk overwhelmed by emotions and deserving of our respect. Think "Love on a Farm Boy's Wages" from Mummur (1983), "The Loving" and the fantastic "Mayor of Simpleton" from Oranges & Lemons (1989), "Earn Enough For Us"  from Skylarking (1986), and the extraordinary "Rocket From A Bottle" from 1980's Black Sea ("I've been just explosive since you lit me / I've been up with the larks, I've been shooting off sparks / And I'm feeling in love"). But nowhere else does he capture so movingly what Dillard calls the "shivering daze" after one's struck by the world's bounty, its daily treasures that we so often ignore while getting dutifully from A to Z in a straight line. Meanwhile, the church bells softly chime.

Photo of XTC in 1982 by Allan Ballard


Anonymous said...

Great piece, and a bonus: it’s got me reading Dillard again. Thanks!

Joe Bonomo said...

Right on, anon!