[29 November 2007]
Here in the latter half of the 2000s, Robyn Hitchcock is riding a mid-sized wave of revived prominence in the music scene, thanks to a couple of strong recent releases and his influence on current indie singer/ songwriters, Devendra Banhart, et al, who are similarly bent toward surreal turns of phrase and all the wonderful weirdness that nature has to offer. Hitchcock hooked up with Yep Roc for 2004’s Spooked, his surprising collaboration with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings that blended his Byrds-meets-Barrett folk-pop with the flavors of Americana. Two years later, he formed the Venus 3 with Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and Bill Rieflin. Their 2006 record, Olé Tarantula, was Hitchcock’s best in quite some time (which I detailed in my PopMatters review). That band is still on a worldwide tour, hitting some stops a second time.
Yep Roc has now strengthened its ties to Robyn Hitchcock by releasing I Wanna Go Backwards, a five-CD box set consisting of the remastered versions of three of his greatest albums, plus a double-disc set of mostly great out-takes called While Thatcher Mauled Britain. That title establishes the era from which all this material comes: 1981 to 1990. During that decade, he issued two albums of catchy indie rock under his own name, two solo acoustic albums, plus the first four records of hook-filled college rock from Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians. Yep Roc has handpicked his three best non-Egyptians releases, covering the beginning, middle, and end of this ten-year period.
Robyn Hitchcock’s first solo album followed immediately on the heels of the breakup of his first band, the Soft Boys. The year after that group’s excellent swan song, Underwater Moonlight, Robyn issued Black Snake Diamond Role. Although nominally a departure from his previous band, the record features former Soft Boys members Kimberley Rew (guitar), Matthew Seligman (bass) and Morris Windsor (on drums and backing vocals, tasks he would resume as an Egyptian). Unsurprisingly, the album’s sound is an extension of Underwater Moonlight. This is most noticeable on up-tempo, punky pop tunes like “Brenda’s Iron Sledge”, “Meat”, “I Watch the Cars”, and “Out of the Picture”. These cuts make for a smooth transition in Robyn’s discography.
The departure from his former band’s power-pop template occurs on the remaining tracks. “The Lizard” is a slow and sinister trip into the peyote-dosed world of the titular reptile. “Do Policemen Sing?” is a weirdly catchy mid-tempo rocker based on the call-and-response of a falsetto inquisitor and Robyn answering in baritone. By contrast, opening song “The Man Who Invented Himself” is jaunty, piano-driven indie-pop. Aficionados should note that this version of the song finds Gary Barnacle’s sax part dropped from the mix. Personally, I think it’s a shame. Then again, I have a soft spot for Quarterflash and think that Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” is an awesome song, so maybe I’m not the guy to provide a treatise on “The Use of Saxophone in Rock Music”. Also missing from this edition of Black Snake is “Dancing on God’s Thumb”. On Aftermath’s 1987 pressing of the CD, this groovy cut was the only bonus track. 20 years later, we are blessed with eight non-LP extras, but it’s weird that Yep Roc would axe a good song that’s practically become part of the original album. Still, the tracks they chose to append are great ones. The majority come from Rhino’s 1995 pressing or the 1986 out-takes compilation Invisible Hitchcock. The only previously unreleased entry is “Happy the Golden Prince”, a story-song we could probably do without. Fortunately, it’s buried at disc’s end.
Attempts to Be Your Own Love Object
Now, there are solo albums and then there are solo albums. Robyn Hitchcock’s 1984 masterpiece I Often Dream of Trains is one of the latter. The record consists mostly of material Robyn performed alone, accompanying himself on either acoustic guitar or piano. This was his first major foray as a singer-songwriter in the traditional sense. Coming from a post-punk popster like Hitchcock, the result was a wondrous surprise. In these more naked surroundings, Hitchcock’s weirdness seems less like a quirky patina. Here, he comes off as fully committed, even to the Freudian faux-barbershop quartet ditty “Uncorrected Personality Traits”, in which he proclaims: “The spoiled baby grows into / The escapist teenager who’s / The adult alcoholic who’s / The middle-aged suicide”. Then there’s the cowboy campfire song, “Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus”. Another classic is “Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl”. It’s pure goofball, sure, but it does feature the excellent line: “Cauterize this passion with a blood-red kiss”.
For every fun track, Robyn offers a dark beauty. With piano like a midnight lake, “Cathedral” is achingly beautiful. The fingerpicked guitar lines of “Winter Love” rise and tumble over lyrics more romantic and old-fashioned than one would expect from Hitchcock: “Leaves of frost upon the trees/Lovers falling on their knees”. Robyn doesn’t stick just to these bipolar extremes of songwriting, though. He also offers us some great songs that are major-keyed, mellow, and tuneful. “Trams of Old London” and “My Favourite Buildings” are both sentimental and elegantly simple, as if he were channeling Ray Davies. The chiming title track is another mostly sunny song, and a highlight of one of Robyn Hitchcock’s all-time best albums.
Robyn Hitchcock - I Often Dream of Trains (plus The Man with the Lightbulb Head)
Time Is Round and Space Is Curved
Robyn formed the Egyptians right after I Often Dream of Trains and spent the next five years building his career as a mid-level star of the college rock scene, culminating in a 1989 arena tour with R.E.M. At decade’s end, while recording the fourth Egyptians album, Robyn laid down a collection of solo acoustic tracks that would end up as 1990’s Eye, his second masterpiece. The record offers a wide variety of approaches, moods, and tempos, from the menacing piano backing Robyn’s emphatic warning on “Executioner” to the bouncy guitar strums of perhaps his happiest love song ever, “Beautiful Girl”. He also gives us a couple of cuts that are like short stories. “Clean Steve” is about a guy who’s so wholesome that he’s creepy: “He’s good at playing Frisbee / And his teeth are shining bright”. Meanwhile, “Linctus House” is a warm and folksy song about being vulnerable in a relationship on the edge: “If I was on my knees/You’d have a pretty good view of my skull/And I happen to know you’re carrying a chisel”. For all his renown as a wordsmith, Robyn’s skills as a guitarist had grown by this time, too, as evidenced by the lovely and winding instrumental track “Chinese Water Python”. This is one of those discs where the artist could seemingly do no wrong, no matter what he tried. Bonus tracks “Century” and “Shimmering Distant Love” show that the excellent Eye could’ve held a couple more gems. And now it does!
The first batch of Robyn Hitchcock out-takes and extras, Invisible Hitchcock, emerged in 1986. This was followed in 1995 by You & Oblivion, yet another CD full of non-LP tracks recorded throughout the ‘80s. Some of the material from those two releases have been added as bonus tracks to the albums reviewed above or are compiled on the double-CD package, While Thatcher Mauled Britain. This set also includes many previously unreleased gems, like the cheery “Melting Arthur”, the mantra-like “Toadboy”, the weird doo-wop of “Lightplug”, and the box set’s title track, which sounds like a thornier version of “She Said She Said”. Yes, there are a couple of duds here. The hurdy-gurdy(?) arrangement on “The Abandoned Brain” is wearying, and worse on the dour “Opiatrescence”. Robyn makes up for this, though, with plenty of fantastic tracks: the whacky “Victorian Squid”, his faux-lounge singing on “I Got a Message for You”, and the beautiful “Birdshead” are as good as anything from a proper Hitchcock release. The bad news is that While Thatcher Mauled Britain doesn’t entirely replace the tracklisting from Invisible Hitchcock or You & Oblivion. The completists among you will probably be happy for the excuse to hold onto those older collections, though.
Obsessive loyalty is the kind of fanship that Robyn Hitchcock engenders. I Wanna Go Backwards is no doubt aimed at those folks, although nearly every cut on this box set is fantastic and would make a wonderful addition to any music lover’s collection. For those of you who are timid to take such a big plunge, Black Snake Diamond Role, I Often Dream of Trains, and Eye are all available individually. These songs should be gobbled up by Robyn’s more casual admirers, as well as anyone looking for great ‘80s music that lies outside all trends, even those from the indie underground. Robyn has always been his own artist, and these recordings display his unique songwriting powers better than all his other material. Though hardly concise, this is the best of Robyn Hitchcock.