Robyn Hitchcock is cooler than you, and he always has been.
In the 1970s, as frontman of The Soft Boys, he released Underwater Moonlight, one of the pinnacles of the psych-revival movement of that period. Naturally, The Soft Boys did what really cool bands do after they put out a masterpiece—they broke up.
In their wake, Hitchcock wasted no time putting out his brilliant debut, Black Snake Diamond Role (which he recently performed live in its entirety, backed by Yo La Tengo, something I would've liked to see) and a steady stream of albums in the following years, both under his own name as well as with his backing band, The Egyptians.
More recently, in the 2000s, his penchant for collaboration led him to a trio of albums with the Venus 3, a band consisting of three former REM associates, stalwart Peter Buck, jack-of-most-trades Scott McCaughey, and drummer Bill Rieflin, who was a member of some of the most prominent industrial bands from Ministry to Nine Inch Nails before joining REM (he now plays with King Crimson).
But back to Robyn Hitchcock’s coolness.
He has always been quite handsome, and still is, in his 60s. He has an inexhaustible collection of patterned shirts and eyewear, has cool, floppy hair (which was once black and is now white) and in general dons the affect of a tough dandy.
In interviews, he is sophisticated, elliptical, at times bordering on the arrogant or vain, but also seemingly quite warm and genuine—he seems to take himself quite seriously, but somehow not to excess. He lives in Nashville and is friends with Grant-Lee Phillips and, presumably, Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch (the latter of whom designed the cover for 2014’s The Man from Upstairs and appears on his forthcoming album).
I can’t claim to have mastered his discography, which is somewhat intimidating, though also quite consistent in quality, which helps. I have listened to his 1984 album I Often Dream of Trains most of all, as have most people I imagine—for a long time, I did not listen to any other album of his other than Underwater Moonlight because it seemed impossible to me that anything could come near it. I still sort of feel that way, but have since found much to admire elsewhere as well.
For one, I particularly like Element of Light, a 1986 album with the Egyptians (especially “Airscape”) and I similarly admire the return to acousticism on 1990’s Eye, which features some of Hitchcock’s most memorable tunes (fan favorites “Cynthia Mask,” “Queen Elvis,” “Glass Hotel,” and others). Being a fan of Jon Brion, I’ve also listened to a bit of Jewels for Sophia, but not with the attention it deserves.
Why pick Moss Elixir, then? Well…I was curious to listen to a later-stage transition album, one where Hitchcock sheds the Egyptians’ mantle for the final time. If Eye was a kind of I Often Dream of Trains, vol. II, it might be tempting to interpret Moss Elixir as volume III, but on reflection there is much that sets it apart and makes it, crudely put, its own thing.
The album starts off quite promisingly with rolling guitar and lilting fiddle, a kind of (unintentional?) “Baba O’Riley” homage. Hitchcock has never totally shed his psychedelic roots, which find a way of cropping up in virtually everything he records, and this album is no exception, though there are also a fair share of more conventional moments.
Hitchcock’s gift for melody—more specifically, for unpredictable shifts and leaps in melody—is on full display here. Listening to the album made me think of how many bands, from the lo-fi power pop of Guided by Voices to the Sprechgesang of Destroyer, owe him a great deal.
Songs like “The Devil’s Radio,” “Filthy Bird,” "Man with a Woman's Shadow," “You and Oblivion,” and the closer, “This Is How It Feels” are so compelling, on the strength of Hitchcock’s playing and singing, and—like the best of his songs—so effortlessly inventive that they almost seem like he’s showing off. There is a coolest/smartest-kid-in-the-room feeling with Hitchcock that only he can really pull off—if you read his lyrics, they sound like bad high-school poetry, but if you hear them, they sound bloody brilliant.
It’s not that the songs are particularly showy—though, to be sure, the lyrics are fairly “heady” and so consistently surprising and off-kilter that they sometimes run the risk of seeming pretentious or obscure. Rather, it’s that, along with his singing, the words sound so spontaneous that you could imagine them being made up on the spot by a Lennon-esque wit (I have a much higher tolerance for his songs than those of the—forgive me!—relatively humorless Nick Cave, whose lyrics also sound much more forced). There is a kind of spontaneous artifice to Hitchcock—you can imagine that he’s cultivated his style for so long that, by now, it is a kind of second nature.
That said, this album does have its occasional misstep, at least to my ears—“Alright, Yeah” is a bit conventional, in a mid-90s jangle-pop way, and “The Speed of Things” sounds a little too derivative of REM. But overall this is a strong release, which I would place in Hitchcock's top five pending further review...
I would love to be able to see Hitchcock live one day, preferably in company (with Jon Brion or Grant-Lee Phillips or both, since we’re being selfish). In the meanwhile, I will content myself with listening to his new self-titled album, coming in April, the first single of which is quite encouraging. It was produced in Nashville by Brendan Benson (formerly of The Raconteurs) and features the kind of psychedelic cover the late, great Gary Grimshaw used to design. On it, the impeccably dressed Robyn, framed by LSD hues, holds a cute, fluffy cat—perhaps a tongue-in-cheek nod toward today’s Internet culture, to which his musical spirit is otherwise quite inimical.
Or maybe he just likes cats—surely he’s not too cool for cats?
3 March 2017
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