Sunday, November 23, 2008

"I Used to Say I Love You" /
Robyn Hitchcock

I just saw Robyn last night, at the Symphony Space here in Manhattan, performing his oddball 1984 "psych-folk" album I Often Dream of Trains in its more-or-less entirety to be filmed for an upcoming documentary. Now, those of you who read this blog regularly know what a sucker I am for Robyn Hitchcock -- for his floppy gray hair, his loud shirts, his spaced-out free association stage monologues, his haunting melodies, his wicked sense of humor, his absurdist lyrics about death, sex, and decay. Last night's show was a delight from start to finish, even the moments when he blew a line or played the wrong chord and, with a nonchalant "take 2", redid it. I sincerely hope the film's editors don't cut out all the bits he prefaced by saying, "This is the part they'll edit out," because with Robyn Hitchcock those are definitely the choicest moments.

You know how sometimes at a concert you hear a song you think you know well, and suddenly in performance it simply explodes with new significance? That's what happened last night with "I Used to Say I Love You." A simple acoustic number, floating along on a deceptively childlike melody, it came across last night as a real spellbinder, a wondrously acute dissection of human emotion.

With an opening line like that, anybody else's song would be a wistful reminiscence about love lost. Not Robyn Hitchcock. "I used to say I love you," he begins, only to follow it up with "It wasn't really true" (sliding up teasingly to the note at the end of the line, a trick of his that's unsettlingly charming, I must say.) But before you brand him a liar, he adds, "I wanted to believe it / And now I almost do."

How many of us have done that, talked ourselves into love? But even that is a simplification of what Robyn's on about. The second verse navigates through even finer shades of meaning: "I used to say I love you / I said it as a threat / Or maybe as a promise / To see what I could get." He doesn't even know what his motives are, or were, anymore, and he probably never will.

Forget about deciding whether the love was genuine or not; in the bridge, he ruefully sketches the sea change in his feelings: "But my heart doesn't break anymore / No my heart doesn't ache anymore / 'Cause it just couldn't take any more." The way each line keeps climbing the same three notes, only to fall back again, is a pretty good imitation of how emotions keep surging fruitlessly in a not-quite-right love affair. And when he ends with "And I've lost my illusions about you now," you can't help feeling the melancholy in that disillusionment.

Sure, on one level he was just manipulating this girl -- he'll admit as much: "I used to say I love you / It wasn't what I meant / What I really meant was / Come on in my tent." (Though, honestly, the way he utters "tent" makes it sound awfully damn inviting.) "But you were reluctant / Although I was so hot" (hmmm, I always have to catch my breath as he breathes that last word). "Now I understand it / But back then I did not." By the time he's got to this line, it's so loaded with give-and-take, even that simple rhyme is packed with complexities.

Okay, quick recap: This was one of those tug-o-war relationships, where vows were sworn and promises broken and nothing ever really meshed, despite a lot of hopeful chemistry. But it's all in the past, and now things are in limbo: "And now if I should see you / Or call you on the phone / I wonder who's that person / I could never call my own." There's an epiphany for you -- that moment when you strip away all the baggage you loaded onto somebody and realize you never really knew that person at all. It's a strange hollow feeling, much different from the way you'd hate someone who actually betrayed you. "Although I kind of like you / I'll never understand / Why I got so excited / Each time that we held hands." Again, the words are simple, just like that tripping melody, but the weird dislocated emotion he describes is anything but simple.

It seems like a featherweight song, and done differently it could be quite snide and snarky. But he keeps it so tentative -- a rhythm regular as rain dripping off the eaves, a fluttery tempo that avoids dwelling too long on any of these perplexing truths. There's a sadder-but-wiser quality here, but also a bone-deep loneliness, because the part of him that longed to be in love has wound up with nothing. And the side of him that didn't want to be in love? That side's feeling emptier than ever.

So I sat there in the audience and felt this song unspool, and I was simply gobsmacked. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. Thanks again, Robyn.

I Used to Say I Love You sample


Uncle E said...

I don't know why but I've been reticent to delve into Robyn's music. He's got an intimidating back catalogue, and I guess I need some advice. Where's a good place to start, Holly? I trust your judgement, so have at it!

om said...

Hey! First-time visitor here (directed from Brooklyn Vegan, who quoted you):

(1) I was at the show too! What a wonderful concert.

(2) That song has always been my favorite off I Often Dream...

(3) To Uncle E: imo, you could do no better than to start with the aforementioned album (I Often Dream of Trains), or with the album Eye. Both are mostly acoustic, mostly drumless, and in my view that's usually the best way to listen to RH.

(4) Holly, you write beautifully...

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks, om -- glad you enjoyed the show too. It was pretty dreamy.

Unc, om is right about Trains and Eye being wonderful, and I too prefer acoustic Robyn -- but it's only a slight preference, because the electric stuff's good too. And knowing your tastes in music, I'm tempted to suggest you start with the Soft Boys anthology 1976-1981. (It's OOP but fairly available from online sellers.) I'm also quite fond of Jewels for Sophia, which is full of goofy energy. I actually think you'd dig that the most.

Gosh, I wish you lived down the street so I could drop off a mix tape...

Mark said...

What a lovely, insightful piece, I need to listen to this song again! I love all the details you work in, a review like this is exactly why I like reading your blog. (Still jealous that you got to see Robyn do Trains live!)

The Modesto Kid said...

Thanks, Holly -- I love this song and agreed, Saturday's performance was pretty special. Thanks for the insight! My notes on the show at

Holly A Hughes said...

Excellent review! Everybody check out that link above -- it's full of great moments from the show.

Brad said...

Beautiful write-up, Holly. I, too, was surprisingly moved by that song at the Boston show. Well, not surprising that I was moved, just that it impacted me more than any of the what-must-be-hundreds-of-times I've heard it. And more than any of the other songs that night.