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 neighbour 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 fuelled 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”