Robyn Hitchcock (Planet)
There’s some immediate pleasure in hearing electric and aggressive (enough) guitars, and a band, emanating from the speakers again when putting on a Robyn Hitchcock album.
Not that his recent forays – which have focused more on his folkish and troubadour sides - have been anything less than interesting, and his tours, usually solo, have highlighted what a great, if always odd, storyteller he is.
But as with producer Brendan Benson, who insisted on Hitchcock plugging in and beefing up, those of us who first heard Hitchcock in the weird, power-packed but always pop-driven Soft Boys have reason to celebrate. This is a very fine record.
Now, a self-titled album usually denotes a career launch or mid-career relaunch, but for 64-year-old Hitchcock, who has been a solo artist for more than 30 years, it may be more a declaration of certainty even as he says “I’m singing from the past/I’m singing like a fossil/Time goes by so fast”.
Making a guitar rock album again isn’t about proving anything or reclaiming anything, it’s just what’s on the plate today from someone who is a frisky and engaged as ever. And who is not defined by one sound or style.
This is what it sounds like to have ingested psychedelia alongside pop music, whimsy alongside darkness, literature alongside comic books, and country alongside rock.
Yes, country, and not just because Hitchcock has been living in Nashville of recent times. I Pray When I’m Drunk continues a tradition of English pop digging the checked shirts and boots, in the way the Beatles covered Act Naturally, and Hitchcock sings it like a young (English-accented) Johnny Cash.
Even better is the mellow, pedal steel-laced 1970 In Aspic which is a reminder that the turn of the 1960s saw bands all over the world “do a Band” and get down-home and earthy after the excesses of summer of love/acid/studio play. Country rock emerged from that back-to-nature movement and this song, and the drifting in clouds pastoral of Sayonara Judge expose those roots.
1970 In Aspic also offers Hitchcock telling the pivotal year that its “bacteria will live in me forever”, a typically wry and off-centre observation in an album not short of them. For while the wildest flights of lyrical fancy he’s offered in the past are no longer here, Hitchcock has plenty still up his sleeve.
Whether it’s asking who can squirt blood furthest “into the mouths of our cannibal overlords”, in the opening chug of I Want To Tell You About What I Want, imagining the “amniotic sea inside my real mother” in the paisley underground redux of Time Coast, or “I’m a butterfly but jealous fingers fray” in the offbeat crime novel-in-waiting Detective Mindhorn, he can trick and please the mind.
That said, some of the best lines come in the least freaky images and most obvious words, or even in tone more than words. Hitchcock feels very real and very close while reminiscing about his father, “a lonesome dad”, the pleasures in the mechanics of a trolley bus “vamping down the high road”, and adult acceptance of childhood absences, in the cello-and-mushrooms Raymond And The Wires.
And likewise when casting an eye back to a vaguely defined loss among glistening chiming guitars in Autumn Sunglasses. Then in Virginia Woolf, while snaking guitar and chunky rock pushes against the skin he takes Woolf and Sylvia Plath’s suicidal paths as understandable choices, when “sometimes you feel what you don’t want to feel/Sometimes it hurts where you don’t want to hurt”.
He’s smart this chap, but not without soul.
Let’s not say it’s good to have a rocking Robyn Hitchcock back, for that’s only part of the story. Let’s say instead it’s great to have him in all his forms and incarnations.