The first cut on Robyn Hitchcock’s new album deals with a guy stuck in a dysfunctional relationship with his TV set; it’s precisely the sort of half-charming, half-creepy stuff this resolutely quirky artist has been coming up with since he was in The Soft Boys 20-some-odd years ago. But “Television” sounds less Hitchcockian and more Appalachian, thanks to the presence of David Rawlings (who produced Spooked) and his ever-present musical partner, Gillian Welch. It’s a song about a strictly contemporary subject delivered like some old-time murder ballad. I suspect the likelihood of this sort of incongruity is part of what prompted Hitchcock to get in touch with the bluegrass duo about doing this record in the first place. And as soon as Welch half-opens her throat to harmonize with Hitchcock on the first chorus, it’s obvious he’s made the right choice.
Speaking of continuing relevance, Spooked is the perfect title for an album made and released in these edgy times. Hitchcock deals with present-day anxiety whimsically rather than specifically, while Rawlings and Welch provide an uncharacteristic but fitting mise en scene with their solemn plucking and barely suggested grooves, which function much like the shadowy cross-hatching you see in Edward Gorey’s drawings. Telling song titles include “Demons and Fiends,” “Creeped Out” and “We’re Gonna Live in the Trees.”
In a personal missive that serves as his press-kit bio, Hitchcock mentions this material “was birthed in a nest of Dylan songs.” Although he doesn’t specify, I’d bet every dollar I get paid for this review that this batch was inspired by Dylan’s last two LPs, Time Out of Mind and the cosmically prescient Love and Theft (the latter released Sept. 11, 2001); both are meditations on mortality, the first reflective, the second at once agitated and warmly elegiac. Fittingly, Hitchcock turns in a performance of “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door” (from Time Out of Mind) that couldn’t be more authentic if he’d written it himself. And in keeping with longstanding reference points, he does a spot-on Lennon in “If You Know Time,” which sounds like it was cut around the same time as “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” or the B-section of “We Can Work It Out.”
In his note, Hitchcock likens Spooked to “a child’s drawing of a recording session,” and this is what makes the record more than it seems on casual listening.