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Artists Condensed: Robyn Hitchcock (solo work, part two)

There's a certain academic convenience to living in the Internet Age. Before the likes of iTunes, Rhapsody and Last.fm it was no small task to run through the catalog of a particular artist, double that if the artist was somewhat obscure. In a different time I would have had to hunt around dozens of record shops to find the complete solo work of Robyn Hitchcock because his early albums were hard to find even when they were first in print. While it would have been more personally rewarding to go on a potentially months-long scavenger hunt for Black Snake Diamond Role, the experience would have skewed my perspective of Hitchcock's development as an artist. Seeing him move from friendly, jovial pub-pop to a more lonely, introspective sound in five days instead of five months, or five years, allows for a certain amount of necessary detachment. People get attached to the sounds of their favorite artists and so they get angry at any deviation. It's so much easier to be a fan of the autumnal tones on I Often Dream of Trains when I'm not expecting Groovy Decay. First track, first (solo) album. The only thing that lets us know this is a Robyn Hitchcock song is the nasally vocals and the slightly odd lyrics. It's enjoyable, sure, but it's also the sound of an artist who hasn't found his voice yet. Compare the above to "Cynthia Mask" from 1990's Eye. This is the Robyn we fans have come to know. Surreal but eminently singable lyrics, spare yet beautiful instrumentation and a definitive sense of melancholy. Beginning on I Often Dream of Trains and carried throughout the rest of his work, Robyn Hitchcock embraced the instrumental track and he actually did it right. The essence of a good no-singer song is its own self-contained perfection. If lyrics would actually make it worse, you know you've done it.
  • Transparent Lover
  • Glass Hotel
  • America
This is the acoustic version of "America" from the soundtrack of Rachel Getting Married. I prefer it to the original, which is a bit too rocky by comparison. It makes me think of a documentary called Sex, Food, Death... and Insects about the recording of Goodnight Oslo, the second album by Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus Three. Watching Hitchcock sitting around with other great musicians in a summery house playing music that makes them happy is a real treat. Hitchcock has played around with different styles, though he never wholly embraced any of them. He's had a long but spare love affair with country western music, the best and earliest example being this weird track from I Often Dream of Trains. This is, in my opinion, Robyn Hitchcock's most sad, beautiful song. It perfectly captures a sense of loss and loneliness, then releases it in a cathartic confessional amid classic but not cliche lyrical content. I always wanted this song to be the opening track on its album. It has a sort of transporting effect, moving listeners from their own world into the world of Robyn Hitchcock. Ultimately, that's how we're supposed to approach his music. It belongs to its own world and it's trying its best to communicate with us in the little bit of shared language we have. Robyn Hitchcock is the type of musician who's never going to retire (at least I hope). Like a dedicated chef, even if he doesn't take as active a role in the business of his craft, he's still gotta eat. This part of the Condensed project doesn't really cover most of what he's done as an artist. In fact, it hasn't even touched what he's doing right now. I'll get back to Robyn Hitchcock to look at his work with various bands in another installment. Until then, listen well.