My first encounter with Robyn Hitchcock came while watching the BBC’s Whistle Test in the late 1980s.
Hitchcock was performing one of his most lauded songs Brenda’s Iron Sledge, featuring the immortal lyric: All aboard Brenda’s Iron Sledge/Please don’t call me Reg/It’s not my name.
From that point on I was hooked, quickly becoming one of his small, but devoted band of followers.
A charismatic and eccentric performer, Hitchcock is something of a musicians’ musician – Peter Buck of REM has been a frequent collaborator and his latest, self-titled offering, features vocal contributions from Grant Lee Phillips, Gillian Welch and Wilco’s Pat Sansone.
The 21st album of his 40-year recording career, it makes for a great jumping off point from which to explore the rest of his work, going back to the early albums with The Soft Boys in the 1970s.
Indeed, the heady opening to that decade is celebrated on 1970 In Aspic from the new record.
In a refreshingly unsentimental re-imagining, the 64-year-old Hitchcock hearkens back to a defining moment in his life – the almost Country and Western backing highlighting the influence of his new Nashville base.
The past is a frequent visitor to this album, most explicitly on the spacey Time Coast and Raymond And The Wires, which recalls a 1960s trolleybus ride with his father.
But if the epic Sayonara Judge can be read as an artist running a rule over the successes and failures of his life, it’s clear Hitchcock’s not ready to call time on his career just yet.
Album opener I Want To Tell You About What I Want is an ambitious post-punk musical manifesto, in which he sets the world to rights with a mix of straight-talking and surrealism.
As ever there’s a strong late-period Beatles influence, notably on the backward guitar-psychedelia of Autumn Sunglasses.
One of the strongest songs on the record, it shows his ability to build a song from a single startling image or object, a trick he repeats to great effect again on Mad Shelley’s Letterbox.
There’s more great psych guitar on Virginia Woolf, which references the suicides, of not only the Bloomsbury Group writer, but later poet and novelist Sylvia Plath.
But this isn’t a gloomy record in any sense, in fact, it’s very uplifting both musically and lyrically.
The affectionate Johnny Cash pastiche of I Pray When I’m Drunk is another nod to his move to Music City, even if the line “I think about you when I strum” owes more to Kenneth Williams than Hank Williams.
While the stylish glam stomp of Detective Mindhorn contains one of sharpest lyrical images I’ve heard in many a year: “I’m a butterfly that jealous fingers framed”.
Producer Brendon Benson, of Raconteurs fame, adds urgency to the music and Hitchcock appears energised by the talents of a crack backing band, featuring guitarist Annie McCue, bassist Jon Estes and drummer Jon Radford.
Astute, funny and salted with a smattering of righteous indignation, the eponymous Robyn Hitchcock is a great piece of work – a genuine pleasure to find him in such fine fettle.
- Robyn Hitchcock is out now on Yep Roc Records
- To find out more about Robyn Hitchcock, including upcoming US tour dates visit his website