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Review: ‘The Man Upstairs’ - Exquisite, accessible Robyn Hitchcock

The new Robyn Hitchcock album, “The Man Upstairs” (Yep Roc, out August 26), is full of beauty, a piece of art etched in glass, a moment of time encased in ice, a wonder to behold. Jim Morrison and Bryan Ferry mixed with Clint Eastwood and a touch a Nat King Cole in some sort of cosmic tapestry, all wrapped up in the art of one tall British musician.

Robyn Hitchcock by Grant-Lee Phillips
Robyn Hitchcock by Grant-Lee Phillips
Grant-Lee Phillips
Artwrok by Gillian Welch
Artwrok by Gillian Welch
Yep Roc Records

Hitchcock has been so prolific of late that fans are still digesting last year’s “Love From London” and the “Phantom 45’s” RSD compilation, “There Goes the Ice.” But we have been blessed, already, with this release. My thoughts on the album have evolved over the past couple of weeks as more information was revealed. Each listening session was another layer of the onion exposed, as new Hitchcock originals danced with covers, all planted and nurtured with care by producer extraordinaire Joe Boyd. It took my breath away, as I believe it will yours. It is interesting that the three artists I follow most intensely these days - Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Hitchcock - have all recently dug deep into their record collections to put their personal mark of the music they love.

Since Hitchcock’s songs tend to be dreamlike anyway, I will meditate on “The Man Upstairs” as I listen to the album for the umpteenth time, while incorporating any relevant information.

Only a select few have been releasing as many high quality albums over the past four decades as Hitchcock. While he has enjoyed the occasional commercial success (“Balloon Man”), made a few screen appearances (three Jonathan Demme movies, including the concert film, “Storefront Hitchcock”), and collaborated with Gillian Welch (who did the cover artwork for "The Man Upstairs"), Nick Lowe, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, and R.E.M., among others, he self-deprecatingly refers to himself as a “cult artist.” If you’re into Robyn, you’re really into Robyn, traveling all around to catch shows, collecting recordings, obsessing online. However, some people are put off by the undiluted dreams that shape his lyrics, or his quirky British sense of humor. You can’t make them get it. Lord knows I’ve tried.

With “The Man Upstairs,” that could all change. It is an album that will not only please diehards, but could be the gateway for new fans to get into his material. The idea was simple: Joe Boyd, producer of the first Pink Floyd single, Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, Nico, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, and R.E.M., among many others (and witness to Dylan “going electric” at Newport), has toured with Hitchcock in recent years to promote his book, “White Bicycles.” He agreed to produce Hitchcock, but only if the album was a throwback to the summer of love, modeled after Judy Collins’ “Wildflowers” - a mix of originals and covers, and not a showcase for a singer-songwriter. However, the real touchstone for “The Man Upstairs” is the Boyd-produced masterpiece, “Five Leaves Left” by Nick Drake, with a touch of “Hunky Dory” thrown in. These are stripped-down arrangements, mostly featuring Hitchcock on vocals and guitar, with economical backing from Jenny Adejayan on cello, Charlie Francis playing piano, and harmony vocals from Anne Lise Frøkedal of Norwegian indiepop combo, I Was a King. The selection of Boyd as producer was a match made in record geek heaven.

November 20, 2013 Joe Boyd newsletter: “And – late breaking bulletin – my pal and touring partner Robyn Hitchcock has agreed to all my conditions. We recorded and mixed a CD in 7 days (with the invaluable assistance of the great engineer Jerry Boys) and we’re both delighted with it. It will emerge on YepRoc sometime in 2014 (provisional title “The Man Upstairs”) and you can judge for yourselves if the Boyd approach works or not.”

The songs, mostly fragile, are all lovingly and sympathetically dressed in lace, ruffles, and velvet, costumes from another era, a snapshot of the past, yet beamed into the now, sounding fresh, current and intimate. The album embraces you from the first notes of “The Ghost in You,” originally a hit for the Psychedelic Furs in 1984, and covered in concert by Hitchcock for decades. The sparse arrangement, devoid of the trappings of 1980s fashion, shows the strength of the melody and lyrics, and the images of the spiritual world connects with the afterlife, one of Robyn’s fascinations. The next song, “San Francisco Patrol,” is Robyn at his purist. At first it appeared to be the most naked and direct love song Hitchcock had ever done, but soon morphed into a story influenced by another one of Robyn’s addictions, the movie “Magnum Force.” No one else could achieve that, nor would they even think of it. The streets of San Francisco mentioned recalled the mournful “Trams of Old London,” from “I Often Dream of Trains.” Next up is another song stripped bare, Roxy Music’s “To Turn You On,” from another obsession, their 1982 album, “Avalon.” Here, in this context, the song’s meaning has expanded, from the romantic to another possible “turn on” - of the 1960s herbal (or chemical) variety, like Lennon on "Pepper."

The next two are original compositions. “Trouble in Your Blood” chronicles a difficult relationship with economical accuracy in sympathetic, hushed, tones (“You’ve got a well protected shell / Deep inside, you’re deep in Hell / You can’t be satisfied / God knows how much you just tried”), with the guitar and cello chasing triplets around, and a coda that could fit on Pink Floyd’s “Meddle” album. “Somebody To Break Your Heart” follows, sounding like vintage Robyn, a jaunty, taunting little harmonica number about an unrequited love cast as a ghost-like figure (“She reminds you of what isn’t there / And what has never been there from the start”).

The second side begins with two covers of a more recent vintage, each written by one of Hitchcock’s musical collaborators. Grant-Lee Phillips’ “Don’t Look Down” is a dreamy mediation referencing Hank Williams and Buster Keaton, with GLP channeling his inner Nilsson. Robyn’s version is more sympathetically arranged, with his heavily British accented vocals adding an etherial, Bowie-esque quality. “Ferries,” originally by I Was A King, is a song Robyn has performed with the band in Norway, with the pop edge of the original. Here it is once again stripped down, bringing to mind the song “I Often Dream of Trains,” with the longing, nostalgic edge at the forefront.

“Comme Toujours” is one of those “Frenglish” songs, with French and English lyrics co-mingling as in Nat King Cole’s “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup,” done with langue firmly dans la joue. A similar but more tentative version was released as a “Phantom 45,” described as follows, again invoking the lead singer of Roxy Music: “Originally conceived for Bryan Ferry as Humphrey Bogart, a man alone consoling himself with a cigarette.”

Hitchcock has been performing The Doors' “The Crystal Ship” at least since the mid-1980s. The Doors can be seen as poetic revolutionaries, or bombastic buffoons. Hitchcock said he recently re-bought the Doors’ debut album on vinyl, and his take on “The Crystal Ship” here focuses on the poetic aspect, with the idea of ships, travel, the dream state, and ghosts, now that both Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek are gone, all reappearing like apparitions. “Recalling the Truth,” another original, is the big, heavy, closing number. The vocal is one of Hitchcock’s best ever, gliding up to the high, lonesome notes with ease, like Lennon on "God." A sad song, too weary to be categorized as “protest,” it resides in a love song - a farewell to something intangible, a faraway time when the truth meant something:

A window of bliss … The price of a kiss / If the price is too high / Then to pay is a sin / You’ve been gone / So long/ You hide from yourself /But it’s tracking you down … It’s me that was lost / And it’s you that I found … It doesn’t last long / Whatever does?

It’s a beautiful pain, a dying leaf, the sound of autumn approaching.

It will be difficult to find a more beautiful, or more fully realized, album than “The Man Upstairs” to be released in 2014. It is streaming on the New York Times website now. Give it a chance, before it, too, disappears.

Videos:

Robyn Hitchcock: The Ghost In You (Solo acoustic 1988)

Robyn Hitchcock: The Ghost in You 2014 (from "The Man Upstairs" is embedded above)

Psychedelic Furs: The Ghost In You

Robyn Hitchcock: San Francisco Patrol (Solo: Sawyer Sessions)

Roxy Music: To Turn You On

Robyn Hitchcock: More Than This

Robyn Hitchcock: Oh Yeah

Robyn Hitchcock: Trouble In Your Blood (Solo: Sawyer Sessions)

Grant-Lee Phillips: Don’t Look Down

Grant-Lee Hitchcock: Satellite of Love (Lou Reed)

Robyn Hitchcock with I Was A King: Ferries

I Was A King: Ferries

Robyn Hitchcock: Comme Toujours

The Doors: The Crystal Ship

Robyn Hitchcock: The Crystal Ship

Robyn Hitchcock: Recalling the Truth (Solo: Sawyer Sessions)

Joe Boyd And Robyn Hitchcock: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

Special thanks to Ken Weinstein.

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Of the dozens of Dylan Internet sites … Expecting Rain … and the examiner.com Bob Dylan blog by Harold Lepidus are the best places for up-to-the-minute Dylan news - David Kinney, “The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob.” (Simon & Schuster, 2014)