I think of The Man Upstairs as a tale of two covers. The umpteenth release from Robyn Hitchcock opens with his take on the Psychedelic Furs song “The Ghost in You.” The track’s mix of spectral beauty and piercing emotional tenderness is a natural fit for Hitchcock, especially as he slows it down a touch and musically strip it to its bare essentials. It’s so perfect, in fact, that it seems as if the gods of rock ‘n’ roll always intended it to be his. They simply misplaced it for a few decades. Restored to the proper fingertips moving up and down the proper frets, the song is reborn, printed in ink into Hitchcock’s personal songbook. On the other end of the spectrum — and the other end of the album, slotted as the penultimate track — is Hitchcock’s cover of the Doors’ “The Crystal Ship.” At first consideration, Hitchcock would seem the perfect performer to find some loopy soul in Jim Morrison’s florid poetry, perhaps tacking it away from empty drama and towards offbeat insight. Instead, it’s tepid and inert, even more so than the languid original. It’s a doodle presented as full-realized track.
By Hitchcock’s own reporting, the structure of The Man Upstairs may be his artistic path forward from here on in. Now in his sixties, he presumably comes at his craft with a different sort of urgency, a more relaxed take on creation. The Man Upstairs is fifty-fifty affair: half of the tracks are new originals and the remainder are all covers (besides the two already mentioned, Hitchcock also draws from Roxy Music, Grant-Lee Phillips, and the Norwegian band I Was a King). It’s as if Hitchcock is cutting through the meandering process that would lead to an Odds and Sods sort of collection and trying to whip up one of those as an entirely intentional work. That’s not to disparage the quality of his songwriting on the record, implying that these are tracks that would have been better relegated to B-sides. On the contrary, “San Francisco Patrol” has a delicate acoustic loveliness that recalls his fantastic 1990 album, Eye, and “Trouble in Your Blood” has a distinct, agreeable Bob Dylan vibe (“You’ve got a dark look in your eyes/ You don’t ever compromise”). Hitchcock’s talent for mixing the odd with the poignant is in full effect.
The Man Upstairs offers a challenge as to what constitutes an important record from an artist. Hitchcock is working with producer Joe Boyd, the man who was behind the boards for significant albums by the likes of Nick Drake and the Fairport Convention, but has delivered a work that is most notable for its understatement, it entire lack of pretension. The whole album becomes an implicit argument against the notion of soldiering on with big new artistic statements when one’s muse has aged to the point where it probably prefers slippers and a warm bath to the flaring of inspiration. That doesn’t make The Man Upstairs a disappointment. Indeed, it’s far from the sort of limp filler many other older acts issue as little more that obvious justification for a more lucrative concert tour. It feels right and honest. This is who Hitchcock is right now, right this moment. And that is reason enough for the album to be what it is.