Let the fanfare play, Robyn Hitchcock that storied psychedelic troubadour has released his 20th album “The Man Upstairs”. A hybrid disc of covers and original work, filled with the typical surrealistic, comedic elements and depictions of melancholic everyday life for which he is famous. There is such genius in Hitchcock’s covers that they might just be better than the originals. Anyone who has been blest to catch Hitchcock live knows he can deconstruct his own complicated songs into amazing acoustic renditions. The songs ‘Globe of Frogs” and “One Long Pair of Eyes” preformed live acoustic spring to mind. The release was produced with Joe Boyd, who suggested the idea of mixing original works with covers. Hitchcock has stated, “I’ve always wanted to make a folk record produced by Joe Boyd and now I have, thanks universe!” This is a record that will please the faithful and be an entryway to his older works for newcomers.
I have been a huge Robyn Hitchcock fan since the late 80’s. The release of “Queen Elvis” with the glorious “Madonna of the Wasps” and “Dark Green Energy”, hooked me on the Neo Psychedelic wizard of alternative goodness. It is not always easy to be an American fan as not all of his works make it across the ocean, and never with the fanfare truly deserved. Hitchcock started out in the 70’s with The Soft Boys. He then broke off into a solo career. He has collaborated with numerous artists, formed Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians and Venus 3 among various other incarnations.
Hitchcock has two very different styles in his music. There is his indie rock side where he has met a balloon called Bruce and encountered the Madonna of the Wasps. Sung the glories of cross-dressing introverts and awoke in Oslo, while talking about trains going to Basingstoke or Reading. Then there are the acoustic beauties that contain such loveliness you almost wish he would never plug in an electric guitar, “She Doesn’t Exist Anymore” and “One Long Pair of Eyes” are two wonderful examples, his cover of Roxy Music’s” More Than This” is another. On this release it is all acoustic with flashes of piano and cello or vocals that put flesh on the bones of the songs. Here is a disc of mostly standards which usually would not garter high regard, but in Hitchcock’s capable hands what was old is again new. You might recognize a lyric or two of the cover song but they have magically become Hitchcock’s copy written material when he is done.
The disc kicks off with a personal favorite of mine, Psychedelic Furs “Ghosts In You”. You will not hear this song the same way after hearing Hitchcock’s rendition. He is at his acoustic best on one of the most beautiful songs by the Pfurs.
The next tune “San Francisco Patrol” It seems like a simple love song until as Robyn is apt to do, he throws in a spanner, by taking a quote from a Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry movie, So the song might not be what you thought it was about. On display here is a show of his storied versatility.
“To Turn You On” is a Roxy Music cover, and as his fans know, not his first. If you were unfamiliar with this song you would think it was an original creation. This seems to be a motif that repeats itself throughout the disc. A very organic striped back arrangement of guitar, cello and piano compliments the song. “Trouble In Your Blood” is Hitchcock at his folk troubadour best. Give this man a guitar and let his unique mind have at it. This song reminds me of Van Morrison in his “Tupelo Honey” era. It comes across like a spiritual.
“Someone to Break Your Heart” is one of the other five original songs on the release. A very bluesy turn with lots of harmonica and a very satisfying listen. “Don’t Look Down” is a Grant Lee Phillip song with a very trippy vibe. Robyn opens up his toolbox of abilities to deliver a very special rendition of this song. “Ferries” is a little known but great tune from I Was A King. Anne Lise Frokenal provides back vocals. The song was an excellent choice to cover. Found in this song is the lyrical playfulness one would expect in something sung by Hitchcock, “Did you see us by the window, waiting for a sign?”
“Comme Toujours” This song has a high difficulty factor because a good portion of it is sung in French. The title means “as always”. Hitchcock the master pulls off the song without it getting hokey or overdone. Hitchcock moves on to his last cover, the Doors “Crystal Ship” a very recognizable song given that Hitchcock twist. The original was done in an almost gothic reading style. Here again we see Hitchcock’s comedic musical stylings at play. There is just the right amount of flourish without going over the top, executed expertly with a sly wink to the audience. “Recalling the Truth” is the last song and an original track. Electric guitar shows up at last. The track is a dream like lullaby at the end of a delightful release.
Hitchcock is a 21st century Renaissance man, he has written poems, designed album covers, acted in movies, and written short stories. Here is a man who touts himself as “Indie rocks foremost authority on the United Kingdom’s trolleybus system”. His delicious sense of humor and appreciation of the ridiculous makes him a living treasure. There should always be a celebration when he releases anything. The recording is not as playful as when Hitchcock is in full spate on his own creations but is a worthy and welcome addition to his discography.