“I won’t miss you or your bones, you corrosive whisperer.”
“There is no substitute for completely cutting off from what is attacking you; as long as none of it has snuck into your space suit.”
“If you can’t face the red meat of your emotions, your life is unlived; your children will have to live for you.”
Such wisdom can be found on the always enigmatic Robyn Hitchcock’s Twitter account. Entertaining, confounding and indicative of Hitchcock’s output since his debut with the Soft Boys nearly 40 years ago, his true self shines through both on record and online. Yet, why is his latest album, The Man Upstairs such a head-scratcher?
Taking a cue from Judy Collins’ 1967 album, Wildflowers, at the urging of famed producer, Joe Boyd, Hitchcock has recorded an album composed of “modern standards” mixed with his own originals. Having covered the likes of Nick Drake (with Boyd on 2011’s tour collaboration, Robyn Hitchcock & Joe Boyd - Live & Direct From 1967), the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Carl Douglas et al, The Man Upstairs finds Hitchcock stripping away the period artifice of songs by the Doors, Roxy Music and the Psychedelic Furs. Presenting his interpretations in a sparse, baroque fashion, Boyd allowed no multi-tracked vocals, robbing Hitchcock of his familiar crutch. But does it work?
Yes and no.
A five-five split of covers and original ballads, Boyd has freed Hitchcock to record as a performer, casting aside his persona, yet The Man Upstairs’s originals find Hitchcock culling the detritus of his shelved output to find songs that fit the timbre of his chosen covers. His gangly lyrics are all but forgotten, save for the newest composition, the bluesy “Somebody to Break Your Heart”, with its opening verse of “True love is wasted on you / Skeletons lounge in the zoo / Look at you your lips have come apart / You need somebody to break your heart”. Backed by Anne Lise Frøkedal of Norwegian combo I Was a King on vocals, Hitchcock reprises the role of Dirty Harry on the existential “San Francisco Patrol”, adding a third song to his planned suite inspired by Clint Eastwood’s 1973 film, Magnum Force, which began with “A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations (Briggs)” from 2006’s Olé! Tarantula with the Venus 3.
Opening with “The Ghost in You”, Hitchcock remains faithful to the Psychedelic Furs’ original, replacing the synths with piano and an orchestral flair provided by cellist Jenny Adejayan. A similar approach is used on Roxy Music’s “To Turn You On”, Grant-Lee Phillips’ “Don’t Look Down” and I Was a King’s “Ferries”, which benefits from the minimalist arrangement of cello, guitar and vocals both provided by the band’s own Frøkedal. The farthest Hitchcock strays on his choice of covers is with “The Crystal Ship”, transforming the Doors’ love song into a folk lullabye.
Of the originals on The Man Upstairs, the Bryan Ferry-inspired “Comme Tourjours” is the most striking. Mingling French and English à la Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s “Bonnie & Clyde”, this piece that dates back to 1980 is the album’s most poignant moment. Another decades-old original, the swaying “Trouble in Your Blood” displays Hitchcock’s lyrical hallmarks but feels flat in its acoustic iteration.
Beautifully rendered by Boyd’s production and its players’ contributions, The Man Upstairs is a beguiling diversion for Hitchcock, the forever odd bird. Taking the piss by playing against type, Hitchcock’s The Man Upstairs is devoid of any mystery or humor, refuting the claim that “A Robyn Hitchcock album always sounds like a Robyn Hitchcock album.”
"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…READ the article