As a thinker, Robyn Hitchcock is a great rock 'n' roller, which doesn't mean his new Goodnight Oslo doesn't artfully address adult themes or display a certain analytical gift. The record is about growing old and getting fuzzy in word and deed, but it's efficient and inspired rock 'n' roll that uses every trick Hitchcock has invented or appropriated in a 30-year career. Clear and concise, Goodnight Oslo is intricate, catchy and funny. It makes you think even when you don't want to, which might be Hitchcock's ultimate aspiration.
Now 56, Hitchcock first came to prominence as singer and songwriter for The Soft Boys, a pop group from Cambridge, England. Influenced by British Invasion songwriters such as Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, Hitchcock early displayed a talent for surrealism that revealed the influence of Captain Beefheart and other late-'60s psychedelic artists. On The Soft Boys' 1980 Underwater Moonlight Hitchcock and guitarist Kimberley Rew concocted a post-punk version of classic British pop. "Kingdom of Love" appeared to rewrite The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress," but Hitchcock says he wasn't aware of the 1971 hit.
"I've never heard 'Long Cool Woman,' I'm sorry, or glad, to say," Hitchcock says via email while on tour in Europe. "I did meet Graham Nash once; he was very pleasant." Hitchcock might not admit to that particular influence, but he's always paid respect to Barrett, whose mad extrapolations on such songs as "Apples and Oranges" and "Jugband Blues" have provided both a style and stance for Hitchcock's compositions.
"What applied to him doesn't necessarily apply to me," Hitchcock says of Barrett, who died in 2006 after retiring from the music business 30 years earlier. "The man was a genius, genius was the man. Then it left him. You can take the art out of the man but not the man out of the art. I'm proud to be associated with him, though I don't know how I sound like him now."
Goodnight Oslo strips away much of the surrealism and archness that colored Hitchcock's '80s albums. If "My Wife & My Dead Wife," a track from Fegmania!, sounded more macabre than it actually was, it still registered as something of a joke. By 1986's Element of Light Hitchcock had moved toward pure lyricism on songs such as "If You Were a Priest" and "Winchester." Oslo makes the lyricism sound plainspoken, and the playing is hard, concentrated and unaccountably rich.
Hitchcock says that his songwriting has changed along with the world outside. "I came along at a point when things had gotten quite self-involved, and my gifts tend to lie with the personal and the miniature. There were views you could take back then that had never been taken before. Now those views have become modified as the sons and daughters of the counterculture have had to navigate 40 years of reality."
If Underwater Moonlight brilliantly navigated around reality, an Oslo track such as "Saturday Groovers" heightens it. Dumb rock 'n' roll about the power of dumb rock 'n' roll, the song features horns and a great wordless chorus. As on the rest of Oslo, the playing by The Venus 3 honors pop conventions without affectation. (The band comprises guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin.) "Busy doing nothing when you're young," Hitchcock sings.
"Hurry for the Sky" is space-age rockabilly, complete with blues changes and lyrics that Carl Perkins would have appreciated. "No. 2 said to No. 1 / You fix this up, or you're finished, son," Hitchcock sings. "No. 3 said to No. 2 / I wish I could trade boots with you." It's a brilliant song, and ends on a bright, unexpected note.
"The trick with recording is to do it little and not too often," Hitchcock says."I like to record the group all playing together. That layered one-instrument-at-a-time shit has never worked for me either. The Beatles only did it when they didn't want to be in the same room as each other. If you're any good as a band you should record together—and if you're any good as an engineer, you should be able to capture that recording."
"What You Is" features what might be the record's best lines: "It doesn't matter what you was / It's what you is / And what you is / Is what you are." As with many of Hitchcock's songs, the outside world makes demands on individuals, and the result isn't always pretty. A student of groovy decay, Hitchcock remains a vexed, sensual realist.
"We don't exist as much as we think we do," he says. "We are simply manifestations of life, to be discarded as life renews itself. Not that our struggle and occasional triumphs are worthless, just unfathomable."
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