I don’t know if Robyn Hitchcock would appreciate being called a “national treasure” but for some folk his idiosyncratic take on psychedelic rock and his whimsical musings over the past 40 years have certainly placed him on some sort of pedestal. Of course, being Hitchcock, this pedestal ideally would support a statue that, like Pygmalion’s, would come to life to inhabit a world half Hieronymus Bosch, half Dali, suffused with sea creatures and wondrous insects along with a peculiarly English vision, all laughing bobbies and trolley buses surveyed through a kaleidoscopic lens. Since his days with The Soft Boys and then The Egyptians and a successful solo career Hitchcock has forged a singular path. His instantly recognisable voice, as English as Beefeaters and pillar boxes, has cut across songs that have tripped the psychedelic light fantastic and others which are delicate acoustic ruminations, all of them an opening into his mind’s eye. For some he’s picked up the baton from Syd Barrett and for a time he was considered a UK equivalent to REM.
This self-titled album finds Hitchcock ensconced in Nashville with producer Brendan Benson and the first thing to say is that it’s his most energetic disc in some years. In fact several of the songs hark back to the youthful vibrancy of The Soft Boys; the tsunami of guitars on Virginia Woolf taking the listener right back to their debut, Can Of Bees while Mad Shelley’s Letterbox has chiming guitars, sitar like sounds and glorious harmonies that elevate the song to a psychedelic power pop heaven. Detective Mindhorn in particular is classic Hitchcock as it pounds along in sixties freakbeat style as he seems to sing of a TV detective with some peculiar powers, kind of like Sergeant Pepper meets Adam Adamant.
The opening I Want To Tell You About What I Want finds Hitchcock setting his wares on the table with some finesse. Here he leads the listener into his weird world, the band providing a muscular background with Hitchcock setting out a utopian/dystopian double barrelled wish list. Sayonara Judge starts out as gossamer spun delicacy with sublime pedal steel before the glistening guitars start to snarl towards the end on a song that makes full use of Hitchcock’s backing singers (who include Emma Swift and Gillian Welch). There’s a wonderful song that’s brimful of nostalgia as Hitchcock recalls a trip with his father on a trolley bus on Raymond and The Wires and this air of nostalgia is transported through the looking glass on the very trippy Autumn Sunglasses which is a perfect simulacrum of late sixties UK psychedelia.
There’s a nod to the Nashville location of the recording on the goofy country of I Pray When I’m When I’m Drunk which tries to marry Hitchcock’s surrealistic words to a honky tonk bar band but essentially it comes across a bit of a throwaway. More successfully, he delves into cosmic country territory with 1970 in Aspic which rings with a degree of authenticity.