Robyn Hitchcock: Spooked
Sound/Style: Folk-influenced pop music with a surreal twist
By Steve Morley
(UMCom)—Pop music has long been rife with intercontinental dialogues, most notably between England and the United States. If Liverpool hadn’t been a port where sailors provided the likes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney with highly coveted American rhythm and blues records, rock ’n’ roll might have taken an altogether different course.
But if the Fab Four lobbed the R&B ball onto U.S. shores, Bob Dylan volleyed a fierce return with his wholly original spin on American folk music. While pop’s "British Invasion" raged stateside, English musicians—including Lennon and McCartney—were seizing Dylan’s innovations in lyrical style and attitude. Guitarist Richard Thompson’s Fairport Convention devised a distinctively European brand of folk-rock that owed as much to Dylan as it did to the native music of the British Isles. Even the shape-shifting David Bowie was once a folkie whose early efforts married Dylanesque folk, British psychedelia and, most oddly, the stylings of music hall crooner Anthony Newley (who would otherwise belong nowhere in this discussion).
This arcane network of late 1960s hybrids is alive, well—and stranger than ever—in the music of British folk-pop eccentric Robyn Hitchcock. Appropriately enough, his recently released Spooked was borne of yet another European/American intermingling. After attending a London performance of Americana darlings Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Hitchcock had a serendipitous meeting with the duo, who turned out to be fans of his work.
While his legacy remains rooted in the left-of-center pop catalogue he made in the 1980s, Hitchcock also possesses acoustic music credentials, having intermittently recorded some folk-based records and even a double CD of Dylan songs. Stylistic considerations aside, the threesome share a leaning toward music both offbeat and adventurous, which is what they proceeded to create. Gathering around a single microphone at Nashville’s historic Woodland Sound, they recorded the rag-tag album au natural, the way their forebears did. Unlike the country legends that preceded them in that studio, though, they produced some of the most inscrutable sounding songs imaginable: mountain music for Martians.
Hitchcock, these days a cult artist who specializes in oddball lyrics, made no discernable effort to accommodate the much-respected Welch and Rawlings, or, for that matter, Nashville tradition. That isn’t to say the CD is without merit—Hitchcock’s melodic knack shines on several tracks, and his musicianship and scope are evident on cuts including "If You Know Time" and the heavily ethnic-flavored "Everybody Needs Love," a redemptively themed number featuring Hitchcock on electric sitar.
At his most focused, he is capable of poetry that is chilling or dimly apocalyptic, like "The party’s over, the bells are ringing themselves—I’m going home." He evokes a distorted Book of Revelations on "Demons And Fiends," which finds his reedy voice intoning "Movin’ out towards the Kingdom, all I see are hobgoblins and ghouls/getting’ off across the heavens, all I see is a fungus and bones/I close my eyes and dream a little harder…of you."
On "Full Moon In My Soul," he expertly employs a sudden tonal shift to prompt attention to the song’s powerful and seemingly precocious centerpiece. "From the darkness inside you, comes the light that will guide you," he declares, then proceeding to ask for transformation but without clarifying to whom he is directing his request. On "Television," he paints a shrewdly on-target, cathode-ray-blue picture of the glowing tube as a hypnotic yet emotionally undemanding surrogate for intimacy: "Murmur to me/you’re the devil’s fishbowl, honey/I undress before your light."
His dusky sense of humor informs the would-be lover’s confession to his TV—"My kids will look like you, I swear"—while the mantra-like repetition of "see through me" that concludes the track is pregnant with multiple meanings.
Elsewhere, the British iconoclast pushes the limits of his idiosyncrasies, utilizing eerie noises, backward guitars and wantonly bizarre ramblings such as "Ghosts walk in the ambulations of hound dogs and bonbons, cinemas and matelots." (A matelot is a fish stew , for those eager to use the word in civilized conversation.) There are enough similarly surreal moments on Spooked to strain the tenuous credibility of Hitchcock’s peculiar art, leaving you wondering whether the disc is to be taken seriously, and if not, whether the joke’s ultimately on you.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.