"Stupefied" / Robyn Hitchcock
Listening to Robyn Hitchcock is a pretty fair way to feel high without have to smoke or snort anything. There's always something deliciously off-kilter about his music, from the Rimbaud-like imagist lyrics to the tripping syncopations to the crunchy snarls of dissonance. It never fails to give me a kick.
With most artists, I listen to a new album hunting for themes, biographical tidbits, a new musical direction. None of those criteria matter with a new Robyn Hitchcock album. Is Love From London any more "about" London than any of his previous albums? No. It's not particularly about London at all, apart from one song -- "Strawberries Dress" (Robyn Hitchcock writes a lot about strawberries) -- that begins by mentioning the Telecom Tower. The lyrics are more stream-of-consciousness than self-expression, and the sound -- as always -- can only be described as the idiosyncratic Robyn Hitchcock sound, a freeform blend of folk and rock and jazz full of insidious melody.
Here's track three, "Stupefied." As you listen, tell me -- whom does it remind you of?
I've always known that Robyn Hitchcock was a huge John Lennon fan, but I never thought he sounded particularly like Lennon until this song. I'm thinking of the later Lennon, the post-Mind Games Lennon, after he rediscovered joy and melody. (I've always given Harry Nilsson credit for that.)
Maybe it's the piano accompaniment -- those plunky modulations -- or the light-fingered percussion skipping behind it. Then there's the chromatic melodies, the unresolved chords at the end of lines, and the way he sings just slightly against the beat.
But most of all, it's the lyrics, a series of absurdist koans that Lennon himself would have enjoyed. "Ain't no money on the ceiling / Ain't no ceiling on the floor," Robyn begins, suggesting a sense of dislocation that works perfectly with the next lines: "Got that terrifying feeling / You don't love me any more." I love how the verse's melody scrabbles around among a few close-together notes, conveying the boxed-in feeling of this beleaguered guy.
In the next verse, desperate for some comfort, he ruefully informs us, "Ain't no whisky in the Talbot," which according to Wikipedia probably means a rare brand of automobile, though it could also be a lunar crater or an obscure type of railway wagon (Robyn Hitchcock also loves trains). "Ain't no sugar in your tea," he adds, as if shaking his head morosely along with that loungy beat. "There's an answer to it all but / You're still mystifying me." Well, that makes two of us.
Perhaps the answer lies in the refrain, as he soars up into a Lennon-like nasal falsetto: "You wanna get [off beat] hi-ii-iigh." Letting loose with that sustained high note really feels like escape, doesn't it? First time around, he continues, "But you don't know just why"; by the third refrain, he tells us, "and by now you know why." So it's the second refrain that's the heart of the song:
You wanna get high,
It's in the blood supply
And time'll go by
Like a neuron in the sky
Don't you know just what this feels like?
Verse three is my personal favorite. "Ain't no honey back in Norway / Ain't no kroner in your pants / Must have blown it in the doorway / On those sugar-coated ants." Maybe these are lazy, opportunistic rhymes, but I prefer to see them as evocative word associations -- the honey with the sugar, the Norway with the kroner, and of course ants, another of Hitchcock's insect fascinations. You've gotta love the way his voice swoops on "pants," which is of course inherently one of the funniest words there is.
All I know is, by the end of the song I'm feeling a little stupefied myself -- but in a good way.