Robyn Hitchcock – Love From London
I’ve been living with this record for a few weeks now, listening in various settings and on various systems, trying to see how it would shake out, settle in, and simmer down. I have a fairly hard time judging Robyn’s work, because my excitement at it’s existence often overwhelms my quality sensors. But eventually I start to come to some conclusions. This is where I am today in regards to his latest album.
The opener, “Harry’s Song”, is a gem. I’ve grown quite fond of Robyn’s piano playing over the years, and this cuts a fine middle ground between the intimacy of a song like “Cathedral” and the Beatlesque pop of The Element Of Light. As a whole, the album definitely reaches toward a certain baroque pop sound Robyn hasn’t aimed for since the Egyptians heyday, and “Harry’s Song” is a low key statement of intent.
Next is “Be Still”, the track Robyn has chosen to be the featured song upon release, and I think it’s pretty dire. I’ve found that a few of the live versions already kicking around redeem it to some extent, but on the album it seems somehow both slight and overstuffed. There’s a lot going on for such a wisp of a melody and the by-the-numbers Hitchcock lyric. If you told me the tune had been kicking around since the Perspex era I would not be surprised.
“Stupified” is aptly named. I don’t know what to make of it at all. There is no percussionist listed on the record, and this isn’t the only song to be saddled with some pretty eyebrow-raising programmed beats. Synth tabla is definitely something I never expected to hear on a Hitchcock record, and after a few weeks I still can’t quite believe it. The tune has a bit of an earworm in the melody, but the percussion can’t be overcome.
The next track, “I Love You”, is a bit of a head-scratcher too. Producer and featured musician Paul Noble has plastered over it with a thumping bass and an incongruous little blurt of fuzz guitar that combine to scream 1991 in all the least appreciated ways. There is a lot of the early 90s in this album, in a way that makes it feel oddly dated, not nostalgic. The lyric is cute as one might expect from that title in Robyn’s hands, and there are some lovely harmonies.
The first side of the album closes with “Devil On A String” which has another overactive bass line from Noble but an excellent chorus, and a main riff that harkens back to the London of the swinging sixties without aping anything in particular. Again, a fine vocal performance from Robyn and cellist Jenny Adejayan, and superb harmonies from Jenny Macro & Lucy Parnell. The bookends of the first side are strong but the bits between range from horrid to bereft.
The second side opens with “Strawberries Dress” which is one of Robyn’s best song in ages. It brings to mind both the recent “Goodnight Oslo” (which has proven to be his best song of the new millennia) and “Madonna Of The Wasps”, and like them is a magisterial piece of chamber pop. The last verse is one of the best on the record, and Robyn’s delivery is perfect. “You/I’m so weak with you/I’m scared that you’ll explode/or walk/away.”
However, like on side one we’ve got a clunker in second position. Did you always want to hear Hitchcock do one of those “cool beats, man” indie rock crossover hits that seemed to plague us throughout the 90s? No? Well, someone thought it was a good idea. Paul Noble put his slowed down variation of the beat to Jesus Jones’ “Right Here Right Now” under what is obviously a sweet little ballad called “Death And Love”. This might be redeemed by a solo acoustic version but as it stands this is not one of Robyn’s shining moments.
“Fix You” gets us headed back into better territory. A very strong vocal performance of a song that is Robyn at his angry Lennonesque best. Robyn rarely gets political, but on songs like this or “The President” he proves he can get a point across with minimal flights into whimsy. I’m not sure quite what to make of the shoegazey guitar bed that politely squeals throughout, but the early 90s are back again. I do like the tooting calliope sound that is buried deep in the mix. Robyn’s little nods to the Beatles always make me smile.
“My Rain” is a comfortable sweater of a Hitchcock song. This is what I expected, even if some of the flourishes are new (female harmonies, weeping cello). A sad waltz, a circular Hitchcock guitar figure, the vibrato in Robyn’s lower register, all familiar, all welcome, all fine.
The record wraps beautifully with “The End Of Time”, a little epic, a six-minute cinemascope of modern psychedelia that at times recalls one-time tour mates The Flaming Lips at their most elegiac, at times slides into pure “A Day In The Life” worship, but always feels distinctly like a Robyn Hitchcock album closer. For whatever goes before, he often has a way with album cappers that is downright uncanny. “Heaven”, “Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis)”, “Wafflehead”, “Jewels For Sophia”, “N.Y. Doll”, and “Goodnight Oslo” all stay long after the notes have faded. Like those high points, “The End Of Time” lingers on.
It’s not his best album in years, it’s not a grand return to form, it’s not an irredeemable pig of a record that makes Luxor look like the Mona Lisa, it’s a collection of soaring highs and stultifying lows. In other words, a pretty typical Robyn Hitchcock album.