Graded on a Curve:
Robyn Hitchcock,
Love from London

Love from London, the latest record from UK-based long-server Robyn Hitchcock, might not blow the doors off the classic records upon which his reputation is based, but it’s clear that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Interestingly, it finds him far more impacted by the precedent of John Lennon than by the example of the late Syd Barrett, a figure that floated around much of his earlier work, and dedicated fans should find the LP a keeper. And happily, in its best moments, new listeners could also find the impetus to investigate his substantial back catalogue.

Robyn Hitchcock’s career finds him particularly well suited for later-age productivity. Beginning with The Soft Boys, it’s been a trip of unusual if accessibly eccentric consistency, with Hitchcock’s first group standing out quite a bit from not only the scorching punk of their first label Raw Records but the grand scheme of ’77-era UK punk in general.

For starters, The Soft Boys were far more musically adept then the average punk outfit of the period, and their songs also tangled with subject matter that was considerably more advanced than the standard shout-along topics of the time; before they were done they released a pair of albums, ‘79’s A Can of Bees and ‘80’s Underwater Moonlight, that are deserved cult-classics.

Additionally, The Soft Boys were one of the earliest punk acts to take influence from the psych-rock of the previous decade, a connection that occasionally found them tagged in the press as “neo-psychedelic;” ‘twas a circumstance that Hitchcock continued to explore after the band’s breakup through his highly touted solo work, frequently with coconspirators the Egyptians and more recently the Venus 3.

First hearing Hitchcock as a young listener in the late-‘80s via his masterful ’84 album I Often Dream of Trains and high-quality subsequent releases like ‘86’s Element of Light and ‘88’s A&M-debut Globe of Frogs, the initial impression was of the aforementioned eccentricity; explicitly British in orientation, clearly descended from Syd Barrett, yet quite different from the twee vibe of fellow Syd-partisan Dan Tracey (of the Television Personalities.)

But underneath the unconventional exterior was a maturity that was distinct from the most of the acts in the ‘80s college-rock/Alternative scene that claimed him. He wrote songs that unabashed ‘60s fogies could often appreciate, and he presented them through a no-nonsense delivery that never stumbled into mere classicism.

And if Syd had withdrawn from public life, his lack of functionality long the stuff of legend, Hitchcock was driven and highly focused as a musician, with a discography loaded with albums that lent him a devoted following. As the records piled up he even found time for a reunion of The Soft Boys, the group issuing the very likeable Nextdoorland on Matador in 2002.

The trait that Hitchcock retained through all these doings was his common sense, above all in musical terms. Some albums were better than others, but no dogs crossed this writer’s ear, and he reciprocated the loyalty of his following by never jumping onto any fleeting bandwagons in hopes of increasing his commercial success.

Instead he worked with director Jonathan Demme on Storefront Hitchcock, one of the better performance films of recent years, while continuing to write, record and tour; a little too well-known to be considered a cult-artist and far too modest in sales figures and eclectic in execution to be described as a pop-act (even if File Under Pop was Love from London’s working title for a while), Hitchcock hung out in the zone between the two poles with uncommon grace, serving his music and his listenership well as he made one of the quieter transitions into the aging-rockers club.

For the first two tracks on Love from London display nary a trace of dissonance between the artist who just turned sixty years of age and the younger man who delivered such classics as Fegmania!’s “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” Element of Light’s “Raymond Chandler Evening,” and Queen Elvis’s “One Long Pair of Eyes.” What he was doing back then is perfectly suited for what he’s doing now; the only question is whether the songs are up to snuff.

The verdict is that Love from London gets off to a strong enough start that even when its later tunes lag or falter a bit, the LP still acquits itself quite well. Opener “Harry’s Song,” a moody piece for keyboard, Jenny Adejayan’s superb cello and Hitchcock’s immediately recognizable vocals (accented deftly by the harmonizing of Lucy Parnell and Jenny Marco) registers as on par with the songwriter’s stronger work.

It establishes a dark tone for the album, an atmosphere that’s achieved without straining; if there is a difference between this older Hitchcock and his former fitful self, it is in how the oddball bits of business like “Uncorrected Personality Traits” or the Barrett-tinged wordplay of his MTV-hit “Balloon Man” have been substantially curtailed.

In a lesser artist this could easily inspire some combination of mediocrity and facelessness, but thankfully Hitchcock’s way with a melody is secure. And if his lyrics/topics are less overtly left of center, his imagery is still vivid and quite unique; I certainly can’t imagine any other singer-songwriter coming up with the opening lines of “Harry’s Song.”

The following track “Be Still” should quell any dubiousness over Hitchcock’s late-career ability. Paul Noble’s production is on-the-money (crisp but lacking in any unneeded slickness) and the musicianship in general is top-notch (especially Adejayan’s cello) but in the end it comes down to the quality of the song.

It combines a lyrical bleakness with a structure that’s sprightly, catchy, and even rather pretty, though it also avoids preciousness; even on Hitchcock’s most “pro”-material (the A&M-stuff with the Egyptians, for instance) he’s always retained enough toughness (a whiff of punkiness, if you will) in form and particularly in content to keep most of his older fans satisfied. And so it is here.

“Satisfied” brings out another big influence on Hitchcock, namely John Lennon, with the emphasis on keyboards recalling the Beatle’s later-solo work. And the results work pretty well. However, “I Love You” falters a bit in shooting for a more rocking vibe; replete with the loudest guitars thus far on the album, it’s still a little too well-mannered and busy to succeed, though on the plus side the vocals and guitar are endearing.

“Devil on a String” does a better job with the same basic idea, partly because it’s looser and more uptempo. Hitchcock’s singing is again a treat, as is the cello and Noble’s bass playing. And with different vocals and lyrics “Strawberries Dress” could’ve maybe been an ‘80’s hit, though perhaps there’s too much of that cello; popsters do generally disdain longhair music.

Speaking of the ‘80s, “Death and Love” pulls off a difficult trick in wedding a Reagan-era synth-pop-ish keyboard vibe to one of Hitchcock’s more atypical songs; if he’d crooned like this in ’86 or so he could’ve ended up on the cover of Smash Hits. But the song does succeed, mainly because it doesn’t overplay the keyboard-y aura and doesn’t underplay the song’s very appealing guitar work. “Death and Love” is still a bit of a stumper, but it’s a pleasant one.

“Fix You” flirts with the same problem as “I Love You,” however. It’s obvious that Lennon was the tune’s vocal inspiration, but in tandem with the ornate musical atmosphere (frankly, Hitchcock works best in more spare settings), the mood is a little too close to Bono for comfort. “My Rain” rights things with another helping of moodiness abetted by glistening strings and airy harmonies, and “End of Time” closes the album on a very high note, retaining the quality of the record’s opening two cuts as it continues to glean inspiration from a Lennon-like template.

As it plays, Love from London reveals itself as a rather unusual record, though a comfortable one. Not everything works, and its charms are rather minor in comparison to his past achievements, but if Hitchcock is correct in assessing that rock music is now an “old man’s game,” he’s batted himself to at least second base with this one.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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