Band: Robyn Hitchcock
Album: Robyn Hitchcock
Label: YEP ROC
Described by its creator as “an ecstatic work of negativity,” ROBYN HITCHCOCK instantly stands among the most energized and ambitious recordings of the iconic troubadour’s long career. Hitchcock’s 21st studio recording and first-ever eponymous release, the album sees him casting familiar shapes into surprising new forms, the sci-fi fueled sounds and visions that first stimulated his work now ribboned with experience and hard-earned wisdom. Spanning dystopic psychedelia (“Mad Shelley’s Letterbox,” “Time Coast”), inspired folk baroque (“Raymond and the Wires,” “1970 In Aspic”), even rambunctious liver-fried country (“I Pray When I’m Drunk”), ROBYN HITCHCOCK marks both a masterful new chapter and ideal entry point into Hitchcock’s wildly brilliant oeuvre.
“It’s ‘Introducing Robyn Hitchcock,’” he says. “Think of me as a new act – I’m only 63. People always ask me, where should I start listening to your records? I’m a train with many carriages. I thought, I’ll just make this record and if people like this one, then they’ll probably like the others. If they don’t, it’s not worth them listening to any of them, really. “
ROBYN HITCHCOCK had its genesis in 2014, not long after Hitchcock officially relocated from England to East Nashville. “It’s a new life with a lot of familiar ingredients,” he says. “It’s hard to say I’m safe in the bosom of the Statue of Liberty at the moment, but I’m among a lot of friends here.” One of those many friends, Nashville neighbor Brendan Benson, soon reached out with an offer to produce an album. The singer-songwriter-producer did have one caveat: “Can you make a record like the Soft Boys?”
“I said, well, I could use the same instrumentation,” Hitchcock says. “Two guitars, bass, drums, and harmonies. Which obviously is the template that comes from the Beatles and Big Star and the Byrds, all of those groups that the Soft Boys were nourished by. But of course I’m not fueled by the same nutrients anymore. I don’t have the same anger that I had as a 25 year old.”
Four decades as bandleader, singer, and songwriter have seen Hitchcock employing and deconstructing that standard model to veer between sonic styles and overall approaches, from the Soft Boys’ proto-psych-punk and the Egyptians’ Dadaist pop to acoustic-built masterpieces like 1984’s milestone I OFTEN DREAM OF TRAINS and his most recent release, 2014’s Joe Boyd-produced THE MAN UPSTAIRS. “My progresses are spiral,” he says. “I move from louder to quieter to louder to quieter in a sort of corkscrew fashion. I move from being inane to being morose. If I have any balance, it’s because I spiral between the two. This one defines the electric me, but maybe if I did ROBYN HITCHCOCK II, it might be more acoustic. I mean, there’s not much to choose from.” Hitchcock did have his choice of Nashville’s finest pickers and players, uniting a crack backing combo that includes guitarist Annie McCue, steel guitarist Russ Pahl, bassist Jon Estes, and drummer Jon Radford. Harmony vocal contributions come courtesy of Grant Lee Phillips, Gillian Welch, Wilco’s Pat Sansone, and singer/songwriter Emma Swift.
“You get to Nashville International Airport and it says ‘Welcome to Music City,’” he says. “They’re not kidding. It’s what it says on the label. Nashville is full of high quality players, just sitting there in the bars, looking coquettish with their legs crossed, waiting for you to pick them up.” ROBYN HITCHCOCK was largely “made up” on acoustic guitar as Hitchcock traveled the world on his seemingly endless tour, its songs often “started on one continent and finished on another.” Always a prolific writer, Hitchcock is as fecund as ever, noting how songs “turn up without me even looking. Like cats, they just appear. I can be doing the dishes and realize I’m actually thirty seconds into a song that’s playing itself in my head. I think, ok, do I go and write this down or do I let this one go? I tend to let them go now because I don’t need so many of them.”
Hitchcock’s psychic catch and release has yielded him a full net bursting with top material. Songs like “Sayonara Judge” and “Detective Mindhorn” – the latter inspired by Mindhorn, a new film co-written by and starring his friend Julian Barratt of surrealist British comedy troupe The Mighty Boosh – are gorgeous and intense, rife with astringent wit, recurring marine life, and finely drawn characters real and imagined.
“In a way, it’s all happening inside me,” he says. “Robyn’s Internal War. In the war between him and himself, there were many casualties.”
“Raymond and the Wires” is perhaps the most personal song on ROBYN HITCHCOCK, possibly the most explicitly personal one in his 40-year songbook. An evocative ode to memory and progress, the song sees Hitchcock peering back through the fog of time to examine the still-impactful influences of trains, trams, and trolleys and his late father, science fiction writer and cartoonist Raymond Hitchcock.
“I am an obsolete electric traction freak,” he says. “When I was at my 11-year-oldest, filling myself with Doctor Who and HG Wells and the Beatles, I found myself drawn to the trolley buses, these vanishing double-decker beasts that fed from overhead wiring, halfway between an ordinary tram and buses. There were only a few trolley bus systems left but I remember my father taking me to see one in a nearby town; it must’ve been 1964. I didn’t do a lot of stuff with him, I didn’t interact with him very much, but whenever we did it made a big difference. It was him that turned up with a radio one day and said, ‘You might want to listen to this,’ and it was the Beatles on ‘Pick of the Pops.’ When Bob Dylan made his Isle of Wight appearance in 1969 – we lived in Hampshire and mysteriously Old Bob had chosen to do his only gig for three years just down the road – Raymond said, ‘Right, you’ll be wanting me to drive you to Southampton at half seven tomorrow so you can buy tickets.’ He was remote and self-absorbed in a lot of ways, but he, as parents do whether one loves them or not, has been a big influence.”
Hitchcock’s one-of-a-kind approach remains as exuberant, irreverent, and immensely moving as ever before, the verbal hijinks and fantastical imagery always in service of surprising emotional exploration and forward-thinking vision. ROBYN HITCHCOCK surely embraces Hitchcock’s sonic past, but songs like the metamorphic first single, “I Want To Tell You About What I Want” are almost painfully of the moment, staring the future square in its orange marmalade face.
“People function on denial,” Hitchcock says. “We focus on the more benign aspects of our humanity but we do a lot of damage. We live at the expense of a lot of other people and a lot of other life forms. We’re locusts with iPhones basically. Rats with laptops. Cockroaches on wheels. That’s where we fit in the ecosystem and we get by by denying it. I suppose this had to happen sooner or later. There’s an ecological crisis coming, a spiritual crisis, a financial crisis. Our chances are slim. It doesn’t look good. There’s a lot of turbulence so buckle up. Maybe they won’t crash the plane and we can move into a more enlightened era.”
Hitchcock’s own future will see him strapping on his Stratocaster for a wide-ranging itinerary of live performances throughout the next year. Currently on the docket are full band shows supporting ROBYN HITCHCOCK in Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville as well as such trips through the back catalogue as his teaming with Yo La Tengo for full performances of his 1981 solo debut, BLACK SNAKE DIAMOND RÖLE, and the recent Soft Boys “tribute show” he performed in Melbourne backed by You Am I’s Davey Lane.
“I can’t see myself rock-touring again,” he says, “but I hope to spike my appearances with electricity.”
Robyn Hitchcock and ROBYN HITCHCOCK both have an undeniable pep to their step. Remarkably vital and positively vibey, the album’s charged psych pop ‘n’ roll stands as not just a high-water mark for Hitchcock but two joyfully raised fingers towards the inevitable.
“It is quite perky for a man of my years,” says he. “I’ve been making autumnal records since I was 30. Now I’m past the autumn of my life so I’ve decided to start making spring records. I can’t be bothered to sound as ancient as I am.
“I am, I suppose, growing old. But I’m not growing up. The brush of maturity has not yet swept my fevered brow.”