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The Old and the Restless

British wit and Southern-fried guitar work constitute Robyn Hitchcock's latest.
Feridoun Sanjar

Robyn Hitchcock is one of those musicians who are (un)lucky enough to be frequently compared to Syd Barrett. For more than 20 years, Hitchcock has blended rock and folk with picturesque and psychedelic lyrics, much as the former Pink Floyd member and acid casualty did. Though bizarre characters and semi-autobiographical tales inhabit Hitchcock's songs, dry wit also peeks through, making Hitchcock's mind trips less off-putting. But like Barrett, he is an odd bird.

On his 16th solo record, Jewels for Sophia, Hitchcock is joined by Peter Buck of R.E.M., a couple members of the Young Fresh Fellows, Grant Lee Phillips (Grant Lee Buffalo) and Jon Brion. A sense of calm pervades the record. Even on the vitriolic "Mexican God," Hitchcock stays reserved. The crack musicians that buoy the songs help maintain an even keel. That they are all competent songwriters in their own right probably helps, but the playing is understated and the production inhibited, which makes the record sound like it's a group in the living room playing for kicks. Jewels is not a party record. Instead, it is something loose and fun, and maybe even something stronger, since Hitchcock is such an off-kilter songwriter. The Englishman wanted to address the state of the world and other political topics but says that he was just not equipped to do that. There are subtle ruminations — such as "Half the world starving and half the world bloats" on "The Cheese Alarm" — but they are buried. In the case of "The Cheese Alarm," they are buried in a list of various cheeses.

"I've got a lot of opinions, socially and politically, which surface at various times, but I can't seem to translate that into songs," says Hitchcock. "If I do, it just comes out didactic. It's not very inspiring. Songs really do seem to have a mind of their own or a will of their own. All I can do is decide whether to be receptive to the stuff that's coming through or not. The songs are all of me, but at times it seems as random to me as if I were a medium."

That's as good an explanation for his songwriting process as can be expected. This is, after all, a man whose song titles conjure up self-contained, imaginary (or drug-induced) worlds: "My Wife and My Dead Wife," "Shapes Between Us Turn into Animals" and "Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl." It's hard to read too much into the semiotic lyrics, but on Jewels there are erotic love songs ("Sweet Mouth"), aerospace fantasies ("NASA Clapping") and what seems to be a semi-sarcastic ode to the Seattle-Tacoma area ("Viva! Sea-Tac").

About that tune: Hitchcock praises the area as a place for "the best computers and coffee and smack." "I've been involved with coffee," says Hitchcock of the song. "I've never been involved with computers or heroin. Those are things that certainly put the place on the map. That line is about the stereotypical view of the city. I'm holding that up, like a fish, for people to smell. I'm certainly not putting the place down. I love it."

In fact one-fourth of Jewel was recorded in the rainy city. Hitchcock also worked in Los Angeles and London, recording piecemeal rather than holing up in one studio for a couple of weeks, which is the way most records are made. Hitchcock says that he works best his way, when sessions are spaced out over time.

"You don't get the tunnel vision that you get when you're locked into three weeks or three months or whatever in the studio," he says. "You go in for two or three days at a time, and it's always fresh and exciting. Otherwise you get blasé. You start turning up late, you start knocking off early. You don't savor the fact that you're in a recording studio and how exciting that can be. I always like to feel like I'm a tourist in the recording studio and it's a complete novelty for me: 'Ooh, what does that button do?' "

Though he approaches the studio like a novice, Hitchcock has taken over the management aspect of his career because he's not new to the business. A self-admitted control freak, he's not interested in telling someone exactly how he wants things done when he can do them on his own, and he says he's not about to take direction from someone with less knowledge or experience. Hitchcock is a career musician who cut his teeth in the late 1970s as a member of the influential Soft Boys, debuted as a solo artist in 1981 and inspired such bands as R.E.M., the Replacements and the Flaming Lips. Clearly he knows what he's doing. At least artistically. His music has been available in America on a half-dozen labels, making a business manager seem like a necessity in chasing down royalty checks and the like. The idea that someone with such a whimsical imagination might also do accounting seems contradictory.

But for the past 18 months Hitchcock has been overseeing the business of Robyn Hitchcock even as he has been taking care of being the artist. He compares using a manager to having someone cut his food, feed him and wipe his mouth. "There's this whole myth that the artist is something that has to be protected from everything and is supposed to sit around getting stoned or meditating and writing songs," he says. "The artist should not be troubled with the realities of business or practical life, and the artist is only approached through the manager, that the manager is some sort of buffer or a conduit." He laughs.

As for business cutting into artistic time, Hitchcock thinks he's got the best of both worlds. He saves himself 20 percent of income, which a manager would take, and keeps himself occupied while he waits for songs to come calling. "I don't think you need that much time to write songs," says Hitchcock. "If you're just sitting there, all you've got to do is write songs. Then you can translate that as 'all you've got to do is have writer's block.' If there's nothing else you've got to do in the world except write a song, it's amazing how difficult it is to come up with one. But if you're writing songs incidental to just carrying on with living, then they [just happen]. Songs appear anyway. You just have to decide if you're going to be receptive to them when they come through or not."

And Hitchcock admits these songs have gotten mellower with time, agreeing that he feels more comfortable singing. The songs, as a result, are less cluttered. For his part, Hitchcock recognizes the absurdity of trying to grow old gracefully as a rock-and-roller. "I think the days of being a young alien are gone," he says. "When you're younger, your material tends to reflect how alienated you can be from everybody. But given that we're living in a society where everybody is as alienated as possible from everybody and that is the norm, really what are you expressing by saying, 'I don't belong with any of you guys?' Nobody does. So what? I'm hoping that my stuff is a bit warmer in that respect. I think [with] the new record, my mental health seems good, listening to it. I listened to Fegmania [from 1985] a couple of weeks ago; I didn't sound healthy.

"It's that thing that you can be an angry young man, but a petulant, middle-aged one doesn't look so good. So you have the choice of either you kind of mellow out and get boring or you remain miserable like Bob Dylan and sort of stick to your adolescent guns. I think there are certain poses and things that you can't maintain. When you're younger, you don't necessarily even realize that you're striking them. Especially in the rock culture. They're just poses that you tend to strike, and they're befitting to younger people. I don't think anyone over the age of 40 with an electric guitar can possibly take themselves seriously. They certainly shouldn't."

Hitchcock, of course, has never taken himself seriously, which is precisely why he can get away with playing rock and roll at 46. Which beats the alternative: Barrett is a recluse.


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