Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Show of hands … who has heard all of Robyn Hitchcock’s previous 20 solo albums, plus numerous B-sides/rarities/EPs and singles, not to mention his early work with the Soft Boys and seen the two documentaries on him?
Okay, that’s a rhetorical question, but it shows just how vast and sprawling the U.K. singer-songwriter’s swath is that even those that consider themselves fans probably can’t keep track of Hitchcock’s voluminous output for a variety of major and indie imprints over his four decade and counting career. And, while few have heard everything, it’s likely most will have at least experienced him in smaller, bite-sized pieces, even if it was during the relatively short A&M/Warner Brothers late ’80s/early ’90s years that produced a handful of college radio focus tracks (hard to call them “hits”) which still sound fresh and offbeat.
While Hitchcock might fit the description of a “cult artist,” his music has never followed an easy path and, to his credit, the word “commercial” probably hasn’t crossed his path. When your songs include such unlikely, often whimsical titles as “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” “Madonna of the Wasps,” and “A Globe of Frogs,” that comes with the territory. Often considered a combination of the Byrds, Bob Dylan (2002’s Robyn Sings was a double-disc-just-above-bootleg-quality collection of Dylan covers) and the less accessible side of R.E.M., Hitchcock’s music also includes a robust side of psychedelic weirdness that trickles through his extensive history.
Which brings us to this, his first eponymously titled disc, and first electric set since 2013’s Love from London. When its debut rocking single and opening track includes lyrics such as, “We’re replacing ourselves with artificial thoughts/ Boop-boop-a-doop,” it’s clear that even a move to Nashville hasn’t changed the mid-’60s Hitchcock’s twisted conceptual approach. And while a trip down memory lane to 1964 on “Raymond and the Wires” (which details taking a trolleybus with his dad), is somewhat linear (the accompanying video of home movies helps), there is little else to imply Hitchcock is getting any less oblique in his old age. When Hitchcock as hurdy-gurdy man continues his journey through the druggy looking glass on the swirling “Autumn Sunglasses,” complete with Beatle-esque harmonies and backwards tape loops, or the closing churning/chiming guitars of “Time Coast,” we’re hearing the man at the top of a game he’s been perfecting for over forty years in trenches he alone inhabits.
These 10 gems slither, rock, roll, glide and shapeshift, coalescing around Hitchcock’s typically anxious, strained but striking and immediately identifiable vocals that haven’t changed — or aged a day — since his Soft Boys tenure. Part of the fun is following along with head-scratching theories that allow just enough light in when he sings on “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox” “Time is written on your face/ and the cold white arms of memory embrace you” to propel the listener to the far more quixotically complex “now it’s only lips of loneliness that taste you” as the song unravels.
Existing fans will rightfully be thrilled that Hitchcock not only hasn’t lost his edge, but has sharpened his knives on this superb set. Newcomers can start here to get a whiff of one of music’s most pungent, eccentric and lovable journeymen doing what he does best, knowing they have plenty more to explore from where this came from.