It’s December 1996 at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ. I’m interviewing ROBYN HITCHCOCK pre-show and we’re talking about the afterlife, endorphins, Captain Beefheart and the 1960’s. From the first song on his 1981 debut solo album, The Man Who Invented Himself, to his new 2014 record, The Man Upstairs; concerns about that Man in addition to time, sex, food, death and insects have been some of the psychedelic troubadour’s primary lyrical concerns.
I’m probably thinking back to that warm conversation on that chilly winter evening, in part because his new record, cut with legendary producer Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, R.E.M.), very much captures the spirit of catching a live and acoustic Robyn Hitchcock gig. Right down to the stripped down vocal delivery (thanks to the producer’s insistence that Robyn refrain from double tracking his vocals, in an effort to help the singer shed some of his usual disguises), the occasional spare but appropriate musical backing, and the presentation of both new material along with cover tunes both obscure and familiar. A record devised by Hitchcock and Boyd to be cut in the same manner “Judy Collins did in 1967,” The Man Upstairs is a 50/50 mix of cover material and heretofore unaired compositions (or “fresh eggs,” as Robyn likes to refer to them).
The Man Upstairs is presented in an acoustic/ folk style. It boasts an atmospheric and autumnal sound that shares similar aural territory as such Hitchcock classics I Often Dream of Trains and Eye. The album starts off with one of its strongest tracks, a cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You.” It’s a song that the singer has spent decades performing live. It’s evident he has been playing it so long that he’s internalized it to the point that it’s almost become his own, stripping back The Furs’ airtight 1980’s production to reveal the beating heart of the song. Elsewhere on the album, he does similar work with Roxy Music’s “To Turn You On.” Other cover material ranges from the lite psych treatment of The Doors’ “Crystal Ship,” and readings of two less familiar tunes from Grant Lee Phillips’ “Don’t Look Down” and I Was a King’s “Ferries.” Both of which Robyn manages to execute successfully using his inimitable skills as an interpreter.
On the originals side of the Judy Collins’ configuration, things start with the yearning and existential “San Francisco Patrol,” which continues the artists’ fascination with Dirty Harry by delivering another installment of his long in the works, Magnum Force suite (an eight-song cycle based on the 1973 Clint Eastwood classic). Elsewhere, there’s the haunted sounding “Trouble in Your Blood,” and the jaunty, harmonica-driven Dylan-esque vamp of “Somebody to Break Your Heart.” The delicate “Comme Toujours” takes newly re-discovered lyrics written 30 years prior and grafts them onto a more recently written arrangement with great success. Closing with the poignant sign off, “Recalling the Truth,” a song that in some ways sounds like it could not only close the album but a brilliant 30 plus year career as well. Whether or not the artist or The Man Upstairs so chooses to make that the case remains to be seen. Let’s certainly hope not.
Genre/ Tags: Acoustic, Folk, Singer/ Songwriter
The Man Upstairs LP: Tracklist:
1.) The Ghost In You
2.) San Francisco Patrol
3.) To Turn You On
4.) Trouble In Your Blood
5.) Somebody To Break Your Heart
6.) Don’t Look Down
8.) Comme Toujours
9.) The Crystal Ship
10.) Recalling the Truth