The British elder statesman of indie rock comes out swinging with a terrific album that's both twisted and full of great hooks.
After more than 35 years as a solo artist (following a handful of years as a member of the neo-psychedelic outfit the Soft Boys), Robyn Hitchcock has foisted his very first self-titled solo album on the world. Despite the somewhat odd move, it’s also rather fitting as Robyn Hitchcock works nicely as a primer on the work of this longtime cult artist who has never received proper recognition as a supremely talented musical visionary.
Described by Hitchcock himself as “an ecstatic work of negativity”, this 21st solo album brings together the various facets of the artist’s musical personality -- with all the creepy, surreal imagery he’s known for -- while kicking the energy level up a notch, thanks to a terrific roster of musicians and a somewhat back-to-basics framework of twin guitars, bass, drums, and vocal harmonies. Hitchcock’s recent move to Nashville helped him nail down a producer (neighbor Brendan Benson) as well as the skills of guitarist Annie McCue, steel guitarist Russ Pahl, bassist Jon Estes and drummer Jon Radford. Additionally, Grant Lee Phillips, Gillian Welch, Wilco’s Pat Sansone and singer/songwriter Emma Swift contribute harmony vocals. Not a bad crew.
Throughout the album, Hitchcock’s myriad influences can be heard, whether it’s the wry British wit of Ray Davies, the oddball psychedelia of Syd Barrett, the young snarl of Bob Dylan, the chiming guitars of the Beatles or the power pop punch of Big Star. Hitchcock soaks up these influences while simultaneously putting his unique, twisted, literate spin on everything.
“You think I’m a thug?” Hitchcock asks in the opening seconds of the album’s first song, “I Want to Tell You About What I Want". “I hear you thinking I’m a thug / Sentimental like a thug,” he continues, his trademark leering snarl intact. The mid-tempo guitars slash away in front of simmering Hammond organ chords, sweetening the pot while maintaining the song’s potency. “Aaah…is my head on straight, baby?” He asks later.
As always, Hitchcock’s lyrics are rife with deep cultural references while still maintaining a groovy swagger. “Virginia Woolf” repeatedly namechecks Sylvia Plath alongside an off-kilter funk beat. I like to think that “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox” is a reference to the poet, but I could be wrong. Still, it’s fun to imagine Hitchcock making 19th century poetry references as the band enthusiastically chugs alongside him.
Another advantage of Hitchcock’s relocation to Nashville is the way the city’s twang has informed some of the album’s music. “I Pray When I’m Drunk” is all up-tempo, steel guitar-fused honky-tonk, and the lyrics seems to recall the appropriate heavy drinking subject matter. “I pray when I’m drunk / I pray for guidance / To get me through the sewer where I am / Don’t know who to / I pray to someone / to get me on my way and give a damn.” Additionally, “1970 in Aspic”, one of the album’s most pleasant surprises, puts the ever-present steel guitar to wonderful use as it washes over the song’s psychedelic-folk arrangement, sounding like an irresistible combination of the Hollies meeting the Flying Burrito Brothers in a highly fruitful, long-lost basement jam session. For someone so steeped in the college rock scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s, hearing Hitchcock dig deep and embrace these far older influences is a wonder to behold.
On the subject of ‘80s college rock, it should be noted that Hitchcock has always dipped his toe into psychedelia while combining it with the indie rock scene in a way that would probably only be rivalled by XTC. Hitchcock’s skewed psych-pop is in full bloom on the wonderful “Detective Mindhorn", sounding like the type of thing Andy Partridge would write in 1986. The song’s bridge takes it even further, with angelic harmonies shooting through the stratosphere.
Several of the album’s best moments indicate an artist who doesn’t seem slowed down -- creatively, at least -- by the aging process. To that end, “Raymond and the Wires” is the kind of odd, unsettling track that would fit perfectly on Hitchcock’s massively underrated 1989 opus, Queen Elvis. A foreboding cello looms over the track while exhilarating surreal imagery unfolds: “My eyes have seen the trolley bus / On her pneumatic tires / Vamping down the high road / Drinking from the wires / My eyes have seen the trolley bus / Her rivets and her wheels / Sinking electricity / I wonder how that feels.” Hitchcock once confessed to Marc Maron on his podcast that his biggest artistic influences are Bob Dylan, Doctor Who and P.G. Wodehouse. This song, in many ways, can be seen as a microcosm of those influences.
Robyn Hitchcock recently turned 64, an age where most artists have either packed it in or have foregone continued creative vitality for the oldies circuit. His most recent album dismisses any notion that he’s taken either of these depressing routes. In fact, if you’re a Robyn Hitchcock fan, this album is an affirmation of his continued skill and talent. If you’re a newbie, buy this album and then buy all the others. It’s a wonderfully twisted ride.