Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Art of the Cover - Robyn Hitchcock's "The Man Upstairs" (2014)


Typical of the man himself, a wonderful piece of dark yet beautiful surreal artwork adorns this wonderful collection from famed psychedelic folk troubadour Robyn Hitchcock.

Named for a tome by P. G. Wodehouse (a hero of Robyn's), "The Man Upstairs" is a magical melange of beautiful new tracks interspersed with a few magnificent covers.

It's the legendary Robyn Hitchcock produced by the great Joe Boyd (famous for his work on Nick Drake classics like Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter, as well as albums by everyone from Pink Floyd to Fairport Convention). What more do you really need to know?

Rather than simply record a new selection of songs, Boyd suggested what he called ‘a Judy Collins album’ such as Elektra would have released in 1967 – part well-known favorites, part personal discoveries, and part originals. The multi-tiered approach offered Hitchcock the rare opportunity to record as a performer, not “just another singer-songwriter laying their freshest eggs.”

The original songs are great, and the eclectic covers are fascinating, while the production has the excellence one expects from the genius of Joe Boyd.

The stripped down covers range from modern standards like Roxy Music’s “To Turn You On,” The Doors’ “The Crystal Ship,” and The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You”, interlaced with lesser-known gems from such pals as Grant-Lee Phillips (“Don’t Look Down”) and I Was A King (“Ferries”) -- the latter featuring harmony vocals and guitar from the Norwegian indiepop combo’s own Anne Lise Frøkedal.

This record is sonically gorgeous with a vaguely Nick Drake-esque aura. No one produces acoustic albums like this anymore.

Hitchcock’s 20th solo studio recording – give or take the odd outtake, demo, and rarities compilations – The Man Upstairs arrives hot on the heels of 2013′s excellent Love From London, which received some of the most glowing notices of Hitchcock’s storied career.

Hitchcock spoke in depth to Marc Maron about this album and about a shitload of other stuff in a fascinating episode of the WTF Podcast a few days back. The witty and erudite Hitchcock talks about his first band, the hugely influential The Soft Boys, and then moves through his solo career, speaking about heroes like Bob Dylan and Syd Barrett - and his dad's famous fictional amputated cock! He also knocks out a powerful sparse live performance of Trouble In Your Blood at the end. You can listen / download at WTF-Robyn Hitchcock

What a bittersweet moment. This album arrives on the heels of the sparkling Love from London  - which this fan feels should have been a much much bigger hit! To put it in perspective, for me Love from London is the spring/summer side of Hitchcock, more muscular than its follow up. "The Man Upstairs" is fall/winter; the mellow daydreamer of the two. You can almost see the leaves change color in your mind. By the end of the album you are watching the snow covered ground with that blinding streak of yellow sunlight peeking through the evergreens.

Don't get me wrong, this is a GOOD thing! These are not sad songs, but they are very introspective. The mix of originals and covers blend perfectly. The only change I would have made is that the beautiful lullaby-like Don't Look Down should have closed the album. It was strange how the songs sometimes morphed for me, as Ferries wasn't a favorite until multiple listens. Comme Toujours is fun for the mix of French and English lyrics, but the strangest thing was the glints of memory jarring fragments of music from another time. Recalling The Truth closes the album and to me seems a personal moment for the Gentleman, so I do the mental equivalent of diverting my eyes and hiding under the blanket of thick, warm guitar as the fireplace burns down to embers.

I approached my review as a fan and not a critic. There is an excellent review by Harold Lepidus online that examines each song in detail. However for me, I prefer to listen over time, finding new details and nuances along the way.

To delve too deep all at once would be like squeezing an orange dry. You have the wonderful juice to drink, but the shell is spent. I'd rather enjoy the thin slices for as long as I can.
By Steve 


01 – The Ghost In You
02 – San Francisco Patrol
03 – To Turn You On
04 – Trouble In Your Blood
05 – Somebody To Break Your Heart
06 – Don’t Look Down
07 – Ferries
08 – Comme Toujours
09 – The Crystal Ship
10 – Recalling the Truth

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