Amid all the fuss over David Bowie’s sudden emergence from hibernation, a new album by another eccentric sexagenarian tunesmith from London doesn’t seem likely to get all that much attention. In the case of Robyn Hitchcock’s Love from London, that’s understandable, but it’s a pity. Maybe Hitchcock should have taken ten years off, like Bowie, to build up a bit of anticipation. But Hitchcock remains as prolific as he is undervalued – Love from London is his 19th full solo album (plus three as part of the Soft Boys), and with a stream of live and other recordings surfacing rarely does more than a couple of years go by without a some new material surfacing.
Over the course of his career, Hitchcock is one of those artists who has gathered consistently favourable critical notices without ever generating a lot of particular excitement or reaching an especially wide audience. On that front, he is in many ways a victim of his own consistency, both in quality and overall approach. For most of his career has traded in a whimsical, melancholy, occasionally surreal and very English brand of singer-songwritery sort of gentle psychedelic pop that owes much to the likes of Ray Davies, John Lennon and Syd Barrett. His classic influences, independent spirit and his lyrics’ mix of clever wordplay, naivety and wry humour also calls to mind more underground artists like Daniel Johnson, Julian Cope and Chris Knox.
Hitchcock has released relatively few weak albums, hasn’t gone down a lot of stylistic cul-de-sacs in search of different sound, and hasn’t had a lot of public personal crises, so he doesn’t generate much in the way of exciting narratives to hang a redemption narrative. When you’re never out of form, there are no returns to form for reviewers to get excited about. But Hitchcock’s consistent overall approach shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of inventiveness. In fact, stepping into his seventh decade just ahead of the release of Love from London, Hitchcock has released one of his strongest, catchiest albums in years.
This is the sort of album that different listeners will find different tracks to love – the album runs the gamut from rolling, sombre piano ballads (the excellent opener “Harry’s Song”) to melancholy pop (“Be Still”, “Strawberries Dress”, “Death and Love”) to funky vamps (“Stupified”) to jagged rock jams (“Devil on a String”, “Fix You”). Not all are fully successful — in general, the slower, more wistful numbers fare better, with some of the more upbeat tracks feeling a little aimless — but overall the quality is very high.
Love from London’s secret weapon is the interplay between Hitchcock’s mannered voice and the gorgeous, delicate backing vocals provided by a range of different female singers. Most tracks feature these backup vocals, but none benefit more than the slower tracks.
“Be Still” is the stellar example. It’s a simple song built on jangling guitars and humming cello, in which Hitchcock seems to ponder the future of an unknown girl (or friend?) next to him, with an enigmatic, strangely moving chorus: “Be still / Let the darkness fall upon you.” It’s a gentle, unassuming track, but all its elements support each other beautifully, and the intertwining vocals give the song a kind of joyful momentum. “Strawberries Dress” and “Death and Love” are equally gorgeous, classic pop songwriting from a master practitioner.
The album finishes on a high note – “End of Time” makes a virtue out of death and the apocalypse, pairing ostensibly dark lyrical material to a strummed, swelling, woozy pop track that brings to mind “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
London mainstays — the BT Tower, Primrose Hill, greedy bankers and, er, rain — make appearances throughout the album, and the cover painting seems to imagine the City of London overcome by rising seawater. But though life and death in London might be the inspiration, Love from London isn’t an album too obviously preoccupied with its sense of place. It’s too individual and existential for that — Hitchcock is more a poet of the personal than a storyteller likely to fill his songs with characters from down at the local pub.
Still, the songs on Love from London are more direct, grounded in the real and everyday, than those on most Hitchcock’s previous albums. It’s an enjoyable change. True, Hitchcock is heading into the kind of age bracket that he’ll start being called a small national treasure. But Love from London shows that far from resting on his laurels he’s still evolving as an artist, making music vital enough to be enjoyed on its own, highly personal terms.