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Robyn Hitchcock – Love From London

Love From London

Robyn Hitchcock’s credibility as an original artist has never been in question, and Love From London, the rock veteran’s 19th solo album, proves to be yet another worthy notch on his storied, if criminally underrated, belt.

Having founded the impressive art-rock outfit The Soft Boys in 1976, recorded and performed with The Egyptians in the 80s and 90s, and played alongside heavy-hitters as disparate as John Paul Jones, Johnny Marr, Nick Lowe, Graham Coxon, Peter Buck, Abigail Washburn, and Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, Hitchcock’s influence in music circles both critically and commercially acclaimed has never been in doubt. Hitchcock is a visionary songwriter and musician equally adept at mystical folk-poetry, jangling psychedelia, whimsical arrangements and occasional kookiness.  No matter the genre at hand, the songs of Robyn Hitchcock have consistently ringed true in his five decades on the scene.

Hitchcock released Love From London mere days after turning 60, but you’d be hard-pressed to guess it from listening to the album. Though vocal Hitchcock admirers are abound (in addition to the esteemed roster of Hitchcock collaborators, famed director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Something Wild, Stop Making Sense, and Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Neil Young’s Journeys) tapped him for appearances in his 2003 remake of The Manchurian Candidate and his critically acclaimed 2007 film, Rachel Getting Married), younger, less adventurous music fans aren’t as likely to conjure his name and songs in the same breath when considering Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, Elvis Costello or David Byrne.

Robyn Hitchcock

Coming into the album, Hitchcock said, “Rock and Roll is an old man’s game now, so I’m staying in it.” Whether he’s voicing genuine approval of the gushed-over reunions and new recordings of the iconic sexagenarian-and-up crowd (Bowie, McCartney, Byrne, Dylan, The Stones and The Who) or being casually tongue-in-cheek, it’s hard to argue against his artistic reach. For every buzzed-about new act reared on the The Stones or The Talking Heads, there’s likely one who stumbled into the mesmerizing, influential pull of Hitchcock’s songs at one time or another. It’s possible to opine that there would be no Destroyer without Robyn Hitchcock paving the way; Dan Bejar’s genius lyricism and eccentric vocals are hugely indebted to the Hitchcock. Additionally, The Flaming Lips have mined similarly fruitful territory marrying the fantastic and the poetic (and they’ve cultivated an untouchable career by taking it to extremes in terms of marketing and performance art), while albums like Tame Impala’s universally hailed Lonerism arguably owe as much to Hitchcock as to Revolver-era Beatles.

The fact that Robyn Hitchcock is as important an artist as his peers but rarely mentioned in the same breath gives him the freedom to do as he wishes musically without being subjected to same deluge of exaggerated press, expectations and backlash. That freedom translates to efforts as thoughtful, whimsical and invigorating as Love From London in his 60th year.

Love from London, a ten-song collection of Hitchcock’s singular “paintings you can listen to,” is an engrossing and often-delightful album that strikes earnestly and poignantly. He pulls off the feat while coming across with all the energy of a man half his 60 years but with twice the wisdom. He scales deep terrain throughout the album, but he flashes his freewheeling charm and psychedelic leanings all the while.  Paul Noble deserves particular praise for recording and producing the bewitching creations at hand in the songs, which are brought to life with the help of Noble (bass, guitar, keyboards and vocals), Jenny Adejayan (cello and vocals), Lizzie Anstey (vocals and keyboards) and Jenny Marco, Lucy Parnell and Anne Lise Frokedal on backing vocals.

From the opening verse on the album’s somberly evocative, piano-driven opener, “Harry’s Song,” (Nothing answers like the ocean / To the albatross that punctuates the sky) to his utterance of “Take me / I’m ready for the end of time” that precedes the hazy drones of “Love from London” backed by a wash of noise and crashing waves in the closer “End of Time,” the album is steeped in an acute awareness of mortality. Even when grappling with the trajectory of life and the vast unknown, Hitchcock is not one to let go of his trademark mirth and whimsical affectations, and his ability to idiosyncratically join the grave with the fanciful is to the utter delight of the listener.

Robyn Hitchcock 2

Hitchcock says, “Love from London celebrates life in a culture imperiled by economic and environmental collapse,” and that examination of our embittered times lends much weight to the heart of his songs. However, even when he is consumed with the disenfranchisement and on the offensive against the injustice, the arrangements never relinquish their mystical beauty.

On “Death and Love,” he pleads “Be wise with me, honey / I’m a fool / Cause I got screwed,” while his fragile vocals circle the celestial air. Against the psychedelic noise and near-industrial chug of “Fix You,” Hitchcock bemoans “Now that you’re broke / Who’s going to fix you?” before howling “Look in your eye!” to the heavens against a clamorous squall. “Well, they fed you the stuff with the money you never had,” he rages, “Then, they want it all back / They make you redundant for being a slacker / While the financial backer is taking a call with a strawberry mousse.” Where such a verse is uncharacteristically overt for a Hitchcock song, it’s a hearty jab.

His sharp lyrics are no less arresting even when he’s not taking on the financial crisis. On the infectiously shimmering “I Love You,” with its Barrett-era-Floyd punch and stomp, Hitchcock sings “I love you” over and over with a Lennon-like prettiness, but his visionary lyrics are what hang with you long after the song ends. “Tendrils grow between us / Tendrils you can’t see / I’m dissolving into you / You’re growing into me,” Hitchcock sings, “I stand beside you, honey / Naked and uncooked / I love you.” Elsewhere, “Strawberries Dress” is an impossibly dreamy tune subtly and tightly plodding along. Adorned with lushly played strings and fairylike backing vocals popping up in the mix, Hitchcock sings, “I dreamed in the rain / A fine young sprite / Naked from the navel downwards / I see you kiss the sun.” His vision strikes as an intoxicated lust before he lets vulnerable fears penetrate: “I’m so weak with you / I’m scared that you’ll explode / Or walk away / You, in your strawberries dress.”

Although Robyn Hitchcock may never see the mainstream praise of his Rock-and-Roll-Hall-of-Fame-inductee peers, albums as rich and multifaceted as Love From London showcase why he’s genuine music royalty to so many artists and fans. If rock and roll truly is an old man’s game these days, the 60-year-old Hitchcock is lengths ahead in the homestretch and sounding like he has the all the vigor and passion necessary for a hopefully long and prosperous victory lap.

★★★★☆ 

Love From London is out now (released March 5) via Yep Roc Records.

 

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