Hitchcock is also in Jonathan Demme's version of The Manchurian Candidate.
That film's version of the Kinks' "Better Things" is lodged in my head this
Of Soft Boys and American Girls
Writer: JUSTIN HOPPER
Robyn Hitchcock isn't as odd as he once was.
No, no, dammit, that's not it.
In his quarter-century in rock, Robyn Hitchcock has learned to hide his
No, fuck that, that's not it either. Dammit, think Perspex, frogs, islands,
trains, Bob Dylan and psychedelic punk, oil and permafrost, living in the
trees with Norm, Fegmania! and "Gotta Let This Hen Out!", sleeping with
Frogs living in trees mate with devil masks to remind you to take out the
trash and bake a spanner into a cake for Robyn Hitchcock, because this
globe is hard to break out of.
Wait -- start again. Spooked isn't Perspex and glass-house-hen-throwing;
no, the new album is Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, "English Girl"s and
American girls, Anglo-American connections and "Tryin' to Get to Heaven
Before They Close the Door." It's about being "Haggard, and I don't mean
Merle." Maturity is hell, and that's warm and comforting.
Robyn Hitchcock's songs may no longer immediately betray it, but the former
Soft Boy and Egyptians headmaster is still the classic English eccentric --
he's just also a lot more.
"I'm in New York, looking at half of the Empire State Building -- I'd
imagine the west half," says Hitchcock, the voice so distinctively Robyn
that one expects a flanged double vocal and harmony to accompany it. "I can
see lots of very New York rooftops: air conditioners, little trees losing
their leaves, trees that probably have their own therapists, and a lot of
classic old -- well, old-for-America -- buildings, which you hope will
never be dislodged."
Buildings you hope will never be dislodged: an architectural integrity that
Hitchcock seems subtly praying for on Spooked, his new album produced by
one-time Hitchcock fans, now-collaborators, Gillian Welch and David
Rawlings (of massive triple-A radio-success fame). If Robyn Hitchcock could
ever be accused of a "political" record, perhaps it would be Spooked,
filled as it is with vague dread and the complexity of emotion that the
21st century has wrought upon the Olde Alliance of Anglo and American.
"Rock, and a lot of what I grew up knowing as folk, has always been ? an
Anglo-American phenomenon. Like Bush and Blair, except that they're a
horrible travesty, but in a sense America and Britain have been shoulder to
shoulder for the last 40 years.
"And the dread is shoulder to shoulder as well: Thanks to [Britain's]
wonderful government, it's all being funneled directly to the U.K. -- so
there's the U.S., being kept at permanent terror alerts, and Britain has
this same jumpy feeling. I think the context is the same for both
Hitchcock's own Anglo-American alliance -- with Welch and Rawlings -- came
about in a much brighter light. When fan Robyn met Rawlings after one of
the duo's concerts, it turned out the feelings were mutual -- Welch had
gone to Hitchcock's shows in her youth, and Rawlings had had the man sign
his guitar at a Boston in-store. When Hitchcock returned to America in
January of this year to finish his work on a small role in The Manchurian
Candidate, he dropped by Welch and Rawlings' Nashville studio where the
trio recorded a batch of new songs that became Spooked.
Spooked contains much that is signature Hitchcock: the George-is-my-Beatle
harmonies of "If You Know Time," the psychedelic postmodern philosophy of
"We're Gonna Live in the Trees" ("Guess what, I've spoken to Norm / we're
gonna live in the trees"), the Hitchcockian language of people who "wake up
covered in oil and permafrost" that has made him the English-psych-mod
Dylan and the songwriting Peter Sellers at the same time.
However, Spooked also marks a unique moment in the Hitchcock oeuvre. Like
relatively recent records, such as 1999's Jewels for Sophia, Spooked
contains mature songs that reference the "tiny frog that breathes" and
other Hitchcock touchstones without using them as a crutch. But between
Rawlings' and Welch's distinctive guitar additions and vocals ("It's like
being in a harmony sandwich," says Hitchcock), and a level of songwriting
that seems a step above an already critically lauded discography, it feels
as though Robyn Hitchcock has followed his personal muses (Dylan, Van
Morrison) into a tiny circle of deceptively simple-seeming complexities.
"I've always been trapped by my own language," says Hitchcock. "I do try to
speak other people's language -- I'll try to make myself understood if I'm
talking to people, but when it comes to writing songs I'm very much at the
mercy of my own way of expressing myself. And if it's become more subtle --
probably the songs are more streamlined.
"I've done little else in my life as an adult other than write songs --
I've never really had a proper job -- so it's the technique I've most
developed. The style is maturing, which to me means doing things apparently
more and more effortlessly, and [so have] the emotions -- I think my
emotional palette has broadened. I'd compare it to an old bi-plane versus a
McDonnell-Douglas or whatever: On the old planes, you can see all the wires
and the struts, you can see all the workings, where on the new planes you
just have a streamlined silver thing that flips through the air and leaves
a trail of nasty soot. Not that my new songs are pollutants more than the
old ones. It's that same thing -- perhaps the workings disappear, and you
can't see how its stuck together, but that's the sophistication of time."
Robyn Hitchcock appears at 8 p.m. Tue., Nov. 9. Rex Theatre, South Side.