Nick Bollinger reviews a new album of surrealistic pop from Robyn Hitchcock.
Robyn Hitchcock: Englishman, surrealist, psychedelic pop savant.
It's forty years since he emerged with Cambridge band The Soft Boys. Though lumped in with the punk-new wave of the period, it was clear even then that Hitchcock really belonged to an older tradition, one with its roots deep in the 60s. A wonderful melange of Kinks, Who and Syd Barrett here, with an overall glaze of mid-period Beatles. You could say Robyn Hitchcock speaks fluent Revolver.
And yet there’s also something very clearly his own; a way of seeing, and expressing himself, that makes him as individual and, at his best, as impressive as any of the artists who inspired him. ‘Mad Shelley’s Letterbox’, from his new album, is a good example. On one level it’s almost nonsense. We never discover who Mad Shelley is, or why their letterbox is full of birthday cards. And yet the image is a powerful, oddly melancholy one, reinforced by an innocently sparkling melody. The effect is much more potent than the simple elements of the song suggest.
Even when he is being ostensibly direct – and can you get more direct than calling a song ‘I Want To Tell You About What I Want’? – he comes at his subject from what you would have to say is an oblique angle.
Surrealist is a term Hitchcock has used himself. Though it began as a visual arts movement, the category of musical surrealists includes Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett, John Lennon (in his ‘Strawberry Fields’/’I Am The Walrus’ period) - and not many others. It’s a small and rarefied group that Hitchcock fits right in with. A song like ‘Detective Mindhorn’ might sound like sheer whimsy. And yet Hitchcock has said that his songs are not escapism, but an attempt to deal with reality, just as dreams are an attempt to process our lives. And there is a kind of dream logic to his lyrics. Perhaps that’s why, even when they seem nonsensical, there is something that can stir the emotions, even if you’re not quite sure why.
But the world of these dream-songs is not always benign. There’s something not so much surreal as just plain disconcerting about a song that depicts, pretty unambiguously, the deaths of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. And it’s not just the lines about them being ‘all right’ (when they plainly weren’t) that creates unease; the whole bright jangling sound, like some lost relic of early psychedelic pop, is almost indecent given the subject matter. It’s another technique Hitchcock has for jolting your senses; showing you reality through the skewed lens of the subconscious.
Hitchcock’s made a lot of albums over the years, and it’s curious that he’s given this latest one the simple, unadorned title Robyn Hitchcock. It’s the kind of name people might give to their first album, but rarely to their nineteenth. Yet it suits a set that is essentially just more of what he’s always done.
His recent relocation from London to Nashville might be superficially flagged in a country piss-take like ‘I Pray When I’m Drunk’. But mostly, the Nashville backdrop has just made his Englishness stand out even more. And with Midwestern Anglophile Brendan Benson (of Jack White’s Raconteurs) in the producer’s chair, these tracks play like a glorious extension of mid-60s British pop, a period Robyn Hitchcock is not just strongly connected to; he’s one of its last and greatest living practitioners.
Songs featured: Sayonara Judge, Mad Shelley’s Letterbox, I Want To Tell You About What I Want, Detective Mindhorn, Virginia Woolf, I Pray When I’m Drunk, Autumn Sunglasses.
Robyn Hitchcock is available on Yep Roc Records.