Victorian wit Oscar Wilde once wrote “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone elses’ opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Unfortunately for Mister Wilde, he lost his battle with the wallpaper before he had a chance to spin the wholly original albums of English songwriter Robyn Hitchcock.
For thirty odd years--with the accent occasionally on the odd--Hitchcock has written some of rock’s most interesting and insightful songs, layering lyrics that explore the darker, stranger side of the human condition over melodies that are catchier than hantavirus.
Hitchcock emerged from the Cambridge scene of the late '70s as frontman for the Soft Boys, whose neo-psychedelic sound was somehow too spiky for the New Wavers but too poppy for the punks. Their 1980 album Underwater Moonlight was under-appreciated until long after the band broke up, but still had a significant influence on R.E.M. and the Replacements, among others.
After a brief solo stint that saw the release of his acoustic masterpiece I Often Dream of Trains, Hitchcock mixed and matched his former bandmates to form Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians. Several critically acclaimed albums followed, singles like “Balloon Man” and “So You Think You’re In Love” found their way onto the modern rock charts and Hitchcock flirted with Mainstream Success but—sadly—she always ended up making out with someone like Spandau Ballet.
After the Egyptians formally split in ‘94 Hitchcock spent the next decade as essentially solo act before teaming up with longtime R.E.M. lead guitarist Peter Buck, original Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey, and Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin to create his current band, the Venus 3.
Regardless of his musical resume, attempting to describe Robyn Hitchcock reminds me of the neatly written placards on the Trader Joe's fruit bins, the ones that explain the taste of an exotic import by comparing it to something more familiar, passing Fejoia off as a pineapple in guava pants or starfruit as grape-spiked apples. Music critics have done the same with Hitchcock, selling him as a well-blended smoothie of Syd Barrett-ish psychedelia, Dylan's lyrical poetry and the Byrds' shimmering guitars. Garnish lightly with a slice of Rene Magritte's surrealist wit and serve immediately.
Because his songs are often populated with repeated references to frogs, flesh, fish and a Raid-worthy collection of insects, every review of his work includes adjectives like “quirky” or “offbeat” and the word “eccentric” must be used at least once, under penalty of law. This unfortunate filing of his work under E-for-Eccentric means that it runs the risk of being dismissed or written off as a novelty, which misses the point entirely.
Eccentric is someone who keeps their scabs in a jar. Robyn Hitchcock is a wordsmith whose ability to pair the surreal with the sublime—employing unforgettable characters like the Man with a Lightbulb Head or a Blythe Spirit-style Dead Wife— provides enough humor to balance an ever present undercurrent of pain. More often than not, once the tarantulas scatter and the frogs disappear, what remains is a sharply-written exploration of loss or regret.
Arachnids aside, much of his thirty (!) album back catalog has a catchy accessibility that makes it enjoyable regardless of which one you choose to spin first. To my ears, his two records with the Venus 3 contain some of the strongest songs of his career and--for the uninitiated--their just-released Goodnight Oslo is an excellent place to drop the needle for the first time.
It’s a consistently listenable work, with Hitchcock’s distinctive voice soaring and diving in perfect symmetry with Peter Buck’s signature Rickenbacker sound. While the musical styles cover the spectrum from Beatlesque pop harmonies to Ennio Morricone twang, the entire album pulses with a kind of sinister sensuality that leans in for a kiss before biting your bottom lip instead.
In a recent interview, Hitchcock said that the album was about “saying goodbye to something that you need to leave…something that is bad for you but at the same time, you really feel sad about leaving it.” That sentiment is introduced in the driving opener “What You Is” with the line “Well you’ve got to come from somewhere/But you don’t have to go back there anymore” and reemphasized by the ominous rumble of the closing title track, a six-minute masterpiece loosely based on Hitchcock’s distorted memories of an early '80s Norwegian weekend. Anchored by Bill Rieflin’s steady percussion, the song builds intensity like an approaching thunderstorm.
Oslo also features a gorgeous pair of conventional love songs, which aren't often found in Hitchcock’s repertoire. The cautiously optimistic “I’m Falling” hinges on the achingly beautiful sentiment “I’m afraid of loving you/But you’re afraid I can’t” while “Up to Our Nex”—written for the Oscar-nominated flick Rachel Getting Married—captures the swirling maelstrom of relationships while summing up the entire film with the devastating stanza “Forgive yourself and maybe/You’ll forgive me”.
Goodnight Oslo is such a richly layered album that upon every listen I’ve discovered a musical nuance or lyrical turn that hadn’t caught my ear before, with each song reflecting the quiet confidence of a musician who is comfortable with where he’s been and where he’s headed, regardless of how many frogs rain on him along the way.