When Robyn Hitchcock released his prior album, 2014’s The Man Upstairs, he offered explanations about the track listing’s assemblage of cover songs and previously incomplete originals salvaged from the archive. He told Billboard that the aging process stirred a specific instinct, making creators “want to put themselves in a historical context, like a picture looking for a frame.” It seemed an intentional announcement of a revised approach to his musicianship, an allowance that glances backward might be the new norm for a singular artist whose deeply embedded eccentricity had previously offered endless surprise. It wasn’t all bad news — the album had its charms — but I couldn’t help but speculate there might not be another Hitchcock album that quivered with the urgency of his best work.
Three years later, my theorizing is proven dead wrong by Robyn Hitchcock, which Yep Roc Records insists is the twenty-first studio album by the man whose name provides the title. Produced in collaboration with Brendan Benson, the new album is as vibrant and forceful as anything Hitchcock has delivered since his extended heyday in the nineteen-eighties and -nineties. Even the stately heft of Spooked — released in 2004 and developed in collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings — doesn’t have the same punch. From the opening track and lead single, “I Want to Tell You About What I Want,” Hitchcock sounds veritably revived. The guitars are a little fuller, the backbeat a little more driving, the spirit of emotionally-piercing absurdity locked firmly into place.
There’s a rascally sense of adventure across the album. Hitchcock dips into different styles, blending each into his own bounding sensibility. His recent time spent in Nashville surely informs the honkytonk lope of “I Pray When I’m Drunk” (“Yeah, I’m glad when I’m drunk/ I feel more open/ To the spiritual leanings that I hold”) and the gentle twang laced through “1970 in Aspic.” And while its no revelation to find him indulging in the trappings of psychedelic rock, its been a long time since it swirled as radiantly as it does in “Autumn Sunglasses.” Then there are instances when Hitchcock seems intent on mastering his own familiar combination of wistful and wild, as on “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox,” which would have been a standout on either Queen Elvis or Perspex Island. That is about as mighty of a compliment as I can pay it.
To think there was part of me that expected Hitchcock to fold into some gentle creative dotage, wan but pleasant albums dropped like pebbles from time to time. How foolish. There’s clearly more joyful brilliance to be had — hopefully much more.