In the interest of prolonging the weeklong indulgence of nostalgia for college radio days, I’ll use the weekly dip into the archives to focus on an artist that I suspect a few folks well-versed in the arcana of me were expecting to crop up during my series of song posts. It’s likely correct to say that no other artist has meant as much to me through the years as Robyn Hitchcock. This is a piece I wrote as part of the “Flashback Fridays” posts I offered up at my former online home.
1991: Perspex Island by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians is released
I didn’t know Robyn Hitchcock’s music very well before I got to college. Like a lot of casual listeners, I suppose, I primarily knew his 1988 song because MTV, perhaps intrigued by the slight novelty tinge to it, gave Hitchcock and his song an uncharacteristic amount of attention. Still, his was one of the names I knew well when I arrived, and I gravitated towards his records, spurred on by a Program Director who was something of a Sherpa as I climbed the daunting mountain of his discography. During the second semester of my freshman year, Hitchcock released the spectacular album Queen Elvis and I was fully hooked. Admittedly, there was a woman involved, a happy fan of Hitchcock’s music who my planet revolved around for a few months with the ingenious British oddball providing the soaring, swirling soundtrack.
Lucky for my playlists (though perhaps unlucky for my meager, struggling bank account at the time), Hitchcock has always been fairly prolific, and new music arrived at the station in dependable fashion, including the gorgeously spare 1990 album Eye. That was followed in 1991 by the album that perhaps looms largest for me from those college years, the one that was wholly enveloping and felt, like all the albums that speak to us most deeply, like a road map of my soul at the time of its release. It’s not simply the inclusion of such perfectly lovelorn songs as “She Doesn’t Exist” and “If You Go Away,” though those certainly got plenty of late night spins when I was in the low-lit isolation of the radio studio. Comparatively jubilant songs like “Oceanside” and the lead single “So You Think You’re in Love” were also part of my unwritten autobiography somehow. Hitchcock’s lyrical mix of strange abstractions and piercing truths suited my own contradictions as a cynical romantic (or maybe a romantic cynic).
I don’t know how well-regarded this album is among those who offer up occasional consideration of the arc of Hitchcock’s career. It’s produced by Paul Fox, who was a fairly busy knob-twirler on the college radio circuit in those days, having overseen XTC’s Oranges and Lemons and on his way to significant work with The Sugarcubes, 10,000 Maniacs, and, adding greatly to his prestige in my circle of fellow music fans, Too Much Joy. Fox had a fairly heavy hand, giving the albums a pronounced polish that didn’t always sit well in a music culture that was beginning to embrace the defiantly lo-fi aural aesthetic. Following the well-regarded, stripped-down Eye, Perspex Island sounded to some like it was too big, slick, needy. It was a little like Bruce Springsteen following up Nebraska with Born in the U.S.A.. The shift was so dramatic that it the newer music could almost be seen as a refutation of the old. That’s a simplistic view, of course, but I think it’s part of the reason that Perspex isn’t held in higher regard. (A flaw in the Perspex/U.S.A. comparison is the not-so-small detail that Hithcock’s album didn’t sell 30 million copies worldwide. In fact, I doubt Hitchcock’s entire voluminous discography has sold that many records.) As ideal as it is when Robyn Hitchcock disregards the extra layers and presents his songs with just a voice and a guitar, I also think his music benefits from a swelling lushness, a sense of an sonic universe expanding to accommodate the wild ramblings of his imagination. That’s what Fox provides.
In some ways, this represents the closing of the door on one portion of Robyn Hitchcock’s career. He’d record only one more record with the Egyptians billed as his backing band and the subsequent years would be about defining himself more and more as an eccentric journeyman, a forgotten elder of rock ‘n’ roll who kept restlessly creating to a dwindling but ever more devoted cult audience. His career is the stuff of admiring Sundance Channel documentaries and reverential excavations shoveled into box sets. When Perspex Island came out, I believed there was a chance that “So You Think You’re in Love” might cross over to become a modest hit. Such notions never cross my mind now when I purchase a new Robyn Hitchcock release, no matter good it is. I don’t think college radio even gives him much attention any more. At least I had my time when I could play songs off this record and help Robyn’s Hitchcock’s inspired strangeness fill the air.