By Steven Rosen
The English musician Robyn Hitchcock, who turned 60 on March 3, says this in the press notes for his new album, "Love From London": "Rock and roll is an old man's game now, so I'm staying in it."
Whenever Hitchcock comes out with a new album -- he's been releasing them under his name since 1981, with the Soft Boys before that -- it prompts reflection on how he has kept the eccentric-British-singer-songwriter tradition alive, carrying its torch with modest but steady success as his forbearers like Kevin Ayers have begun to pass.
A new album is also another chance to realize that, to Hitchcock, the wistful psychedelia of John Lennon's rock -- the melancholy vocals, the mysterious lyrics, the densely layered and droning atmospherics interrupted by some guitar crunch -- was not just a passing "mind game," but a peak moment of rock as psychological exploration. Hitchcock has kept that vision alive and vital.
And yet, put aside the historical perspective and just listen to "Love From London." From the opening, minor-key piano strikes and repetitive swirls of opening track "Harry's Song," Hitchcock catches you -- leaves you breathless -- with his ability to compel.
It's startling. The song has an intimate arrangement. It's a quiet, lachrymose ballad fleshed out with delicate harmony vocals (Jenny Macro and Lucy Parnell) and cello (Jenny Adejayan). He sings with a slightly strained clarity, a gravitas that is both soothing and chilling, that lures you into the importance of lyrics that are ambiguous, even cryptic. It might be about failed love, yet the words also have a visual punch that conjures a world in ecological crisis -- he refers to albatrosses and pterodactyls.
The words are seductive, given Hitchcock's caressing diction and intonation, yet also streaked with darkness and sadness, like Nick Cave's "Love Letter." It's Hitchcock at his best.
Whether solo or in collaboration with Venus 3 or the Egyptians, his albums have been about his sensibilities foremost -- melody trumps rhythm, tenderness takes precedence over crassness, lyrics sparkle like exotic jewels. For this record, he's working with just a small coterie.
He plays guitar and piano while producer Paul Noble provides bass and some additional guitar and keyboards. Cello and vocal harmonies frequently are prominent additions. The record doesn't list a drummer although percussion is evident on some tracks. Still, the songs -- even rockers like "Fix You" -- have a strumming folk-rock soar rather than big-beat roar.
This serves Hitchcock well, partly because he's a natural at distinctive melodies, whether the song is an elegiac ballad ("Death & Love"), something mid-tempo and catchy ("Stupified") or a hook-laden rocker with a monster guitar riff ("I Love You," in which a monster guitar riff is paired with the killer double-take line "I stand beside you honey/Naked and uncooked"). Only on the song "Devil On a String" does he fall back on generic alt-rock cliché.
His voice is so interesting because it has much coloration, expression and dramatic emphasis, from the ominous growl in "My Rain" to that high-pitched, echoing pleading on "End of Time." On that song, featuring Hitchcock's most Lennon-like vocal, he slowly inches into falsetto like a kid climbing up a high diving board.
Only if Hitchcock were on that diving board, he would leap up. And keep climbing. That's the kind of image that comes to mind in describing the impact of his imagery, which can be surreal in its juxtapositions.
He used to be described as "whimsical." Not that there's anything wrong with that, but as he reaches 60, he has pared the whimsy to go for a deeper type of magic realism, one that is serious rather than humorous. He seems to be out there -- mining the subconscious -- while still firmly aware of pop songcraft and the real world as we live it.
The outstanding example comes on the haunting "Death & Love," a rumination on exactly that: "Skeletons are walking in our bodies/Dressed in flesh, and that's enough." Amid this kind of fantastical writing, Hitchcock comes to the jarring, plainspoken and blunt bridge: "Cause I got screwed/Uh-huh."
About what, exactly, one isn't sure. It needs further consideration from the listener. And with this album, he's going to get that kind of attention.
(A slightly different version of this review first appeared at www.AmericanSongwriter.com)
"Love From London"
Yep Roc Records