Tuesday, March 03, 2009

"Hurry For the Sky"
/ Robyn Hitchcock
& the
Venus 3


Turning 56 today, Robyn Hitchcock -- a.k.a. "eccentric British rocker Robyn Hitchcock," as the music mags like to label him -- happens to have a new album out, Goodnight Oslo, which he recorded with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Bill Rieflin and the Minus 5's Scott McCaughey, performing under the name The Venus 3. Their last outing together, 2006's Ole Tarantula!, was where I first jumped on the Hitchcock fan wagon, and it's been a joyride for me ever since. I've now seen him four times in concert, though only once with the Venus 3; I have to say, I do love the way they stir up the rocker in him.

This two-chord song sounds to me like the theme from some absurdist western; underneath it all runs the insistent shush-shush of brushed drums and strummed guitar, clipping along at a hustling pace like a steam train, while lonesome steel guitar twangs whistle in and out like tumbleweed. All very Ennio Morricone, minor-key and moody. In fact, the song it first made me think of was "Perfect Crime," my fave track from the Decembrists' The Crane Wife album; and lo and behold I discover that the Decemberists' singer Colin Meloy is doing a guest-turn here on backing vocals. Niiiice.

Like many a Robyn Hitchcock number, though, "Hurry For the Sky" is not clearly about anything. Verses one and three are all platitudinal self-help advice ("Knock yourself out yesterday / Tomorrow will be fine"; "You can easily confuse / Money with success.") It helps, of course, to imagine the dark-eyed glitter with which Hitchcock is wont to deliver such adages; they're not meant to be taken seriously, except when they are. And just to throw you off course, verse two takes a sharp left turn into the Egyptian imagery that's a familiar Hitchcockian leitmotif: "Pharoah's tomb is empty now / You can come right in / Bandage up your grin / Bandage up your sin." I can imagine him writing that one after watching The Mummy on late night TV -- that "bandage up your grin" line kills me.

"Oh I," he intones in the chorus, his nasal voice sliding teasingly into that sustained note (another trademark device), "I'm in a hurry for the sky." I see big western horizons, and a silhouetted cowboy galloping into it; but no, wait, I also picture a cartoon heaven of fluffy white clouds and this reckless soul landing abruptly at St. Peter's gate. (I also think of the Kinks song "Big Sky," but maybe that's just me.) Whether he's hurling himself toward big dreams or the Big Sleep, he's clearly a restless questing spirit. While we're still riddling over that evocative phrase, he repeats it, this time swooping upward on "sky-eye," resolving the chord. But the way the tempo hurtles on without missing a beat, it doesn't feel resolved at all.

The final verse contains yet more koan-like teases: "Number two said to number one/ You fix this up or you're finished son / Number three said to number two / I wish I could trade boots with you / Number four said to number five /How does it feel to be eaten alive" -- who are these "numbers," threatening and cajoling each other? Naturally I recall The Prisoner, the cult 60s TV show, with its creepy group-think The Village inhabited by numbered strangers, all out to get each other. And somehow it loops back into the chorus: "Number five said / Oh I / I'm not an integrated guy / Oh I / I'm in a hurry for the sky." Not an integrated guy -- this from the fellow who brought you the song "Uncorrected Personality Traits" -- you gotta love it.

I don't care about "solving" this song, in the end. It's about mood, and the almost Cubist clash of images; it's about the song's texture, the faint sneer at the edge of Hitchcock's voice, and that hypnotic thrumming groove. For reasons I can't begin to explain, this song lifts me right out of myself, re-orders my thought patterns, and sets me down again in an ever-so-slightly altered state, not visible to the naked eye. But I know now.

Hurry for the Sky sample


The Modesto Kid said...

not clearly about anything

In one sense it is about the life and death of Brian Epstein; it and the track "TLC" are both from the soundtrack to a forthcoming movie about him, "The Fifth Beatle". (Anyway this is what he told us when he sang them at a show last summer; unreliable narrator of course but the movie does have a web site.) My sense is that number two, number one, number three, number four are the lads, number five is Mr. Epstein. Love that song, I finally got around to ordering "Goodnight Oslo" yesterday and was happy about the coincidence with his birthday.

The Modesto Kid said...

And yes, huge earworm potential. This song is in my head all morning since reading your post.

I'm interested that "Olé Tarantula!" was what got you into RH -- I had been assuming you were a fan from way back. I was a really avid fan briefly in the 80's but had mostly forgotten about him -- and certainly had no clue about his post-80's work -- until I heard "Adventure Rocketship" on the radio and rediscovered his music.

Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, thanks so much for reminding me about the Epstein connection. I heard him say this at last summer's show as well, and completely forgot until now. I suppose it's still not CLEARLY about anything, but that underlying meaning helps a lot. "Knock yourself out yesterday / Tomorrow will be fine " turns into song references, and confusing money with success fits in too. (I still don't know why George wanted Paul's boots, although those Spanish boots were awfully fine...) I remember being entranced with this song hearing it live for the first time, but the title didn't stick in my head.

The good thing about coming to Hitchcock late is that I've had a couple of years now when I could buy a new album every month or so, building my library. Sadly, prolific as RH has been, I ran out of back albums to buy a while ago, so this new CD was very welcome indeed. I'm sure you'll love it!

The Modesto Kid said...

ran out of back albums to buy a while ago

Oh, but don't let that stop you -- there are plenty of alternate pressings and publicity releases available on ebay. (I kid; but you should totally hunt down the alternate pressing of Respect called Spectre, if you have not already done so; it will blow your mind.) Actually the more cost-effective route is, there's a bittorrent site out there where you can download the complete RH discography including promos etc. If interested email me, I'll find the url for it.

I had the same experience, of buying a whole lot of old RH records in 2007 and 2008 -- I stopped short though, there are still 4 or 5 primary releases that I don't have...

Mark said...

Argh, I didn't do anything for Robyn's birthday! I didn't even listen to him, shoot. Oh well. Goodnight Oslo is a great album, really strong songs. Holly, I totally agree with you about not "solving" Robyn's songs. I feel like if I enjoy it, and get something from it, I don't have to totally anaylze every single lyric.

"Egyptian imagery that's a familiar Hitchcockian leitmotif" Holly, you sure know how to turn a phrase! I'm going to try to work "Hitchcockian leitmotif" into my conversations!

Modesto Kid, I like the idea that it's about Brian Epstein, I'll have to listen to the song again with that in mind.