With an album title like Shufflemania! starting with a song named “The Shuffle Man”, is singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock asking us to do the unthinkable – to ignore his record’s running order? To most recording artists who take their tracklists very seriously, the existence of a shuffle function on CD players, MP3 players, and music-playing software are likely considered an evil luxury. Indeed, as Shufflemania!’s first song gives way to the second and the second song gives way to the third, one gets the impression that everyone’s favorite modern-day Syd Barrett sequenced these ten songs in the tradition of classic albums where tides rise and fall as the thread persists.
But Hitchcock has been so wonderfully consistent over the years that it doesn’t matter. Depending on how you count them all, he has released at least 22 studio albums since 1981, and none of them have been missteps. Listen to these LPs in their entirety, and you’ll hardly encounter a bum track, though you may come across a few head-scratching oddities like Respect’s “Wafflehead”. With a discography as strong as Robyn Hitchcock’s, the shuffle function is hardly a threat. So whether or not the man is actually condoning the act, I say shuffle away. No matter the order, you’ll still have a brush with greatness.
“The Shuffle Man” kicks off Shufflemania! with a jubilance matched by other Hitchcock openers like “Adventure Rocketship” and “The Yip Song”. The relentlessly catchy refrain of “Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, oh yes!” bashing over a two-chord left-right-left-right riff is so outright magnetic that it’s impossible to ignore. Adding to the fun is Hitchcock’s Lear/Carroll tendency to address this mythical “Shuffle Man” as something of nursery rhyme lore: “Do yourself a favor / Don’t forget the jam / You need an offering for the Shuffle Man.” It’s quite a bit of a rush, and Hitchcock gives you most of the rest of the record to catch your breath by serving up one track of highly intricate kaleidoscopic pop after another.
“The Sir Tommy Shovel” revs things back up to a quicker tempo with promises to drink responsibly and a vocal echo that can make one’s spine flinch. “The Raging Muse” follows, giving some guitar backtracks that are uncharacteristically muddy for Hitchcock. The chorus makes a bid for a soaring moment, though it remains bogged down in a place where Hitchcockian absurdity could be mistaken for despair: “I look into your eyes / And there’s fish in the glass / Swimming in bowls / Of perfect red eyes / It’s getting to teatime / And the fish are all hungry / And the fish are all shuddering.” If you’re asking yourself, “Why are the fish all shuddering?” then this is clearly your first rodeo.
The stretch in between is filled with some of Hitchcock’s finest songs, including “Socrates in This Air”, a primarily acoustic strummer that reads as a strikingly earnest defense of the philosopher as he faced his execution: “Socrates went to the future / He left that all behind / Yeah, Socrates, he didn’t need / Those mediocre minds.” Musically, it’s all simple enough to let the words shine and for the outro to resonate in one’s brain long after side one has finished: “Plus a little ship of wisdom / On a lake of instant fools / Plus any executioner / He’ll say ‘I don’t make the rules.'” That’s just a fraction of what Shufflemania! has to offer.
“The Inner Life of Scorpio” dials into Pet Sounds grandeur, “Noirer Than Noir” features a cool, late-night vibraphone, and “Midnight Tram to Nowhere” plays like a locomotive ode written and performed by ghosts ushering you off to the afterlife. How else can you explain a verse that says the “Midnight tram to nowhere / It’s rolling down the tracks / Takes all kinds of people, but it / Never brings ’em back”? Don’t be too frightened, because Shufflemania! ends on a chipper note with the gentle tomorrow-will-be-better number “One Day (It’s Being Scheduled)”. Hitchcock predicts that “the human race will not be run by bullies”. Llike his 2017 song “I Want To Tell You About What I Want”, he makes a case for empathy with the simple line “One day / The color of your skin won’t be the great divide / One day / You’ll care about how other people feel inside.”
“It’s probably the most consistent album I’ve made,” Hitchcock said of Shufflemania! Two things can be derived from this quote. First, assembling all of these songs at random isn’t such a controversial idea. Second, singling out Shufflemania! as probably the most consistent entry out of at least 22 studio records is no small claim. Anyone who has heard Hitchcock’s major label work with the Egyptians or his return to jangle-pop with the Venus 3 can attest to that. Yet, to say that Shufflemania! belongs in the man’s upper echelon becomes less hyperbolic with each spin. Concepts like “consistency” and “quality” are relative, but a new album from Robyn Hitchcock is always good for a grand reminder of what is truly “great”, and Shufflemania! is no exception.