Witty, moving and seriously catchy, Robyn Hitchcock is a glorious return for a man who wasn’t really gone in the first place. The madcap Brit has been making brain-teasing albums for nearly four decades (!), first as a member of the Soft Boys and then on his own, turning out plentiful gems along the way.
With someone so prolific—Hitchcock’s latest is his 21st studio outing, not counting his live albums and rarities compilations—creative lulls are inevitable. His previous venture, 2014’s The Man Upstairs, was cause for concern. Split between originals and covers, this subdued work seemed like an undercooked holding action, once the novelty of hearing Hitchcock tackle the Doors and Roxy Music wore off.
Having relocated to Nashville, Hitchcock recruited Brendan Benson to co-produce with him this time, resulting in a self-titled, firecracker of a record that honors his past without wallowing in it. The guitars crackle and snap, particularly Anne McCue’s spiky leads, and Hitchcock sounds especially playful and engaged, still the proud heir of John Lennon and Syd Barrett, yet free of hipster posturing.
From a jolly excursion into old-time country rock—“I Pray When I’m Drunk” could be a lost Youngbloods or Lovin’ Spoonful track—to a bright take on the psychedelic folk-rock template, including cascading vocal harmonies that appear suddenly like a menacing hallucination, Robyn Hitchcock feels familiar and utterly fresh at once, and a perfect summation of the artist, as the title suggests.
While it’s always tempting to caricature Hitchcock as a whimsical surrealist, reductive descriptions miss the mark. His offbeat inclinations offer a means to confront primal emotions such as longing, grief and dread without being overwhelmed by them. That strategy is in effect here, although Hitchcock is eloquently direct at times, exclaiming cheerfully at one point, “All things are strange,” which should be his official slogan.
Soaring like a wayward, windblown balloon, “Time Coast” finds him crooning, “I’m singing like a fossil/Time goes by so fast”; the stomping “Virginia Woolf” contemplates pain and self-destruction, noting, “Sometimes it hurts where you don’t wanna hurt.” In the heartrending high point, the gentle “Raymond and the Wires,” he recalls riding the trolleybus as a child with his distant, “lonesome dad.” When Hitchcock sings softly, “You miss the love you never had,” keep a tissue handy.
Perhaps turning 60 a few years ago sharpened his yen to resolve the unresolvable issues that flummox everyone. Robyn Hitchcock will never unlock the mysteries of being and nothingness, but his never ending quest for existential satisfaction is supremely fulfilling in its own bracing way.
Watch Robyn Hitchcock’s Paste/Daytrotter Studio Session from SXSW below: