In the last few years Robyn Hitchcock has revisited his past with a well-received reunion with his old mates in the Soft Boys, paid back his dues to the immense legacy of Bob Dylan with a double album full of covers, and has unthinkably reached the age of 50. After shaking hands with his past, there is no course left to Robyn Hitchcock but that rocky path toward maturity.
Maturity is an iffy proposition for any rock and roller, especially one whose eccentric lyrics and positive energy have always seemed eternally youthful. This is the man, after all, who wrote "The Man with the LightbulbHead" and "One Long Pair of Eyes". How is he expected to age gracefully? Even more troubling to longtime fans, Hitchcock has made the unusual decision to team up with the undeniably talented yet seemingly stylistically incompatible duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. On paper, Hitchcock's English whimsy would contrast sharply with the emotional gravitas of Welch and Rawlings. There is a dobro on this album! A dobro!
Thankfully, what could have been a failed experiment is instead an almost a textbook example of how a change of genres can help an artist attempting a change in musical direction. Despite Hitchcock's eccentric reputation, there was always a deep emotional layer in his songs that was often buried by Hitchcock's willfully obscure imagery and his often busy arrangements. Certainly some of Hitchcock's best work has been his most underproduced, for instance his solo I Often Dream of Trains or the unjustly ignored Storefront Hitchcock documentary. With the exception of a few brief appearances by NRBQ's Joey Spampinato on bass, Welch and Rawlings are the entirety of Hitchcock's backing band. These sparse, atmospheric recordings give the fullest weight possible on the emotional aspects of Hitchcock's lyrics. The opening of Spooked , "Television", a passionate love song from a couch potato to the concept of television, is a perfect example of the "mature" Hitchcock. "Television" is a satirical portrait of modern society that Hitchcock would have played entirely for laughs in the past, but here he plays it straight and makes it a genuinely sad portrait of a man emotionally connected to a piece of hardware. The tender song gains an emotional weight from both the country influenced playing and Hitchcock's unexpectedly heartbreaking vocal performance. The man has never sung better.
While Spooked is definitely a departure for Hitchcock, Welch and Rawlings do not force Hitchcock into an uncomfortable alt-country persona. Even his most country-like offerings ("English Girl" and "Full Moon in My Soul") sound like perfectly natural extensions of Hitchcock's core sound. This is not some belated attempt to cash in on the already burst O Brother Where Art Thou bubble; this is decisively a Robyn Hitchcock album.
Although Hitchcock is a little more somber on this album, he still retains his own warped viewpoint. "Everybody Needs Love" is a wonderful slice of jangle pop that recalls Hitchcock's salad days with Warner Brothers. The bittersweet ode to the inevitable damages caused by time, "If You Know Time", finds Hitchcock practically resurrecting the John Lennon from Revolver with spine tingling results. Even these uptempo numbers hint at a deeper sense of sorrow, "If You Know Time" seems to be an indirect commentary on the war, and the album is really only lightened up by the delightful "We're Gonna Live in the Trees", a back-to-nature narrative that almost begs for an audience participation sing-a-long: "Hey, I've spoken with Norm / We're gonna live in the trees!"
In the midst of the downcast mood of the rest of the album, "We're Gonna Live in the Trees" is a brief regression into pure silliness that prepares the listener for the impact of his devastating cover of Dylan's "Tryin' to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door". While I certainly could rail against one of the greatest songwriters in rock and roll padding his albums with Dylan songs, but the results are so overwhelmingly moving that is difficult to argue with its placement on the album. The Hitchcock of old would not have been able to sing lines like "when you think that you've lost everything / You can find out you can lose a little more" with the poignancy that he does now.
Spooked is a perfect example of an artist maturing in the right manner at the right time. Robyn Hitchcock has not lost his sense of humor, he has only learned to balance out his natural levity with the appropriate amount of gravity. The fact that this album was recorded during a mere handful of days in an informal jam session suggests that Hitchcock may have a long run of albums left in him.