After a certain age, birthdays begin to come with emotional baggage, provoking one to ponder murky questions. Questions like "What have I done with my life?" "How long do I have left?" and "Can a robot dog chase one of those cars that drives itself?" Many who are at least somewhat satisfied with their answer to the first can safely ignore the other two, and settle into a retrospective frame of mind as they bask in the glow of the setting sun.
Not surprisingly, Robyn Hitchcock is an exception to the rule. Love From London, a new studio album released the day after Hitchcock's 60th birthday, finds the surrealistically inclined Englishman seeking out sonic territory he hasn't visited yet, aided and abetted by a new band, while putting a fresh spin on his distinctive songwriting perspective.
Through the Thatcher years, Hitchcock and the Egyptians expanded their reinterpretation of folk rock and psychedelia through the lens of power pop and art punk, a sound they pioneered earlier in The Soft Boys, and which Hitchcock describes to the Scene via email as "a kind of psychedelic country jazz with arcane harmonies." This work largely ignored synth-pop and dance music, despite the potential for Hitchcock's incisive, somewhat macabre sense of humor to dovetail with the aesthetics of industrial, goth or New Wave.
Love From London, however, dabbles in several schools of electronic witchcraft, from "Fix You" and "I Love You," which share an '80s-vintage acid-house/rock fusion texture built on trance-inducing tremolos, to "Devil on a String," which wraps a snarly glam tune around a contemporary laptop-funk groove. Some of the new sounds were born of necessity.
"The studio that we were using closed," Hitchcock explains, "so [producer] Paul [Noble] suggested recording in his flat, using sampled drums and building the tracks up slowly, rather than the traditional way of 'going for takes' to which I have always cleaved."
Though the pair is adept at wrestling technology into submission — the sampled drums on "End of Time" are a striking emulation of "When the Levee Breaks" — they just as often let it lead them into territory where they ordinarily wouldn't tread. On first listen, the sophisti-pop beat of "Death and Love' is disconcertingly smooth and shiny. As Hitchcock explains in a video on his YouTube channel, this is his interpretation of "Bryan Ferry channeling Woody Allen by a swimming pool in Mallorca" — a universe where all edges are rounded off, but at the core is a bitter nugget of mortality that's pure Hitchcock: "Life is flowing through us like a river / Soon there won't be nothin' left / Through the dark canals of Venice / Hand in hand with love and death."
The record continues his career-long tradition of finding collaborators whose approach, though possibly wildly different, perfectly complements his own. "There's an intimacy in playing and singing with others," says Hitchcock. "A corridor opens into your soul, and you can briefly see a long way into each other. It's almost embarrassing at times."
Though recent records have featured renowned musicians like Gillian Welch and Nick Lowe, contributors to Love From London come from all across Hitchcock's social sphere, including vocalist Lucy Parnell, daughter of a friend from the Soft Boys days. Anne Lise Frøkedal is part of Norwegian psych-pop group I Was a King, whose You Love It Here Hitchcock co-produced with Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake. Following his performance in Nashville, Hitchcock will fly to Oslo to work on their next record. "You never know who you are going to meet, and how they might affect you," he explains. "I don't trawl for musicians, but I often find them in my net."
On balance, Hitchcock rates the experiment a success, but he already has plans to take his upcoming project in a different direction: "I can see the fun in working that way, although my next recordings will be live, acoustic and with no rhythm section."
Right after we got in touch, Hitchcock was spotted sitting in with Chris Pickering at The 5 Spot, increasing the likelihood that we may find locals among the credits. But no matter who contributes or what guise the new work takes, Hitchcock guarantees us that it will bear the hallmarks of his off-kilter humanism.
"I wish I could steer my songs into anything; that would be helpful in a way that 'Masters of War' or 'Give Peace a Chance' helped a cause. But my songs have their own agenda. Which must be mine, of course."