Saturday, April 06, 2013

"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.


James said...

The piano here is definitely very Lennon-like, as are the held notes in the bridge ("high/try/fly"). But if you want Robyn Hitchcock at his most Lennon-like, try "Somewhere Apart" from "Element of Light".

Holly A Hughes said...

Excellent call, James. Listening to it now, and loving it. "A whistle summons up the lava / We must be somewhere east of Java" -- yes indeed!

Uncle E said...

Hi Holly. What is the overall album like? Been meaning to pick it up but haven't as of yet. Absolutely love the cover!

Holly A Hughes said...

Tons o' fun. It's always lovely to see RH's own artwork on the cover, and he does seem to be having fun on this one. (But when does he ever NOT seem to be having fun?) The tempos and rhythms are especially playful and blithe; "Be Still", "Strawberries Dress," and "Fix You" are total ear-worms. My favorite line in the liner notes: "Visit MoccaKaffebar, Egersund, for a relaxing prawn salad."

NickS said...

"Looking over Hong Kong harbor
Throw a shrimp in yellow wine
Eat it when it ceases moving
Just before is fine too

There's an ancient Chinese saying
Always seems to slip my mind
Does it really die with honor
Does it really matter



NickS said...

By the way, you might appreciate, or might have already seen this chart showing music sales (by dollar) of different formats from 1973 to the the present. You can see LPs start out as the dominant format, cassettes become big in the 80s (while competing with LPs) and then CDs kill both of them starting in the 90s.

The thing that really surprised me was seeing just how quickly CD sales have fallen off. They go from 80% of sales in 2006 to 36% of sales last year.

Digital sales are growing quickly, but I think that mostly reflects a decline in CD sales.

I suddenly feel like even more of a holdout than I normally do.

Holly A Hughes said...

No surprise to me, having lived through all those eras. (And what about 8-track tapes?) However, I think that digital is to blame for the decline in CD sales, not an innocent bystander that rose to fill the need when CDs miraculously declined.

One big factor is that downloads allow you to grab one track if the album isn't solid enough to warrant buying the whole thing. Album-filler tracks have been around for ages, and now artists are paying for their own carelessness.

I'm a hold-out myself, but then the artists I most like deliver solid albums with no filler!

NickS said...

I was also surprised to see 8-tracks making up 1/4 of the market for several years.

I do remember artists complaining about the switch from LP to CD meant that an album was expected to be 50+ minutes rather than 35 minutes, leading to more filler.

It seems like they are getting more comfortable releasing 40-45 minute CDs these days. That may help. I also buy albums, but I would note that for at least a third of albums I have a clear favorite track (or two) and everything else is clearly less interesting.

Mark said...

Holly, great review of a great song! This one is one of my favs from the new album as well. And like you, I love that 3rd verse! It keeps getting stuck in my head. And I agree with James, "Somewhere Apart" has always seemed the most Lennon-y Hitchcock song to me-it sounds like it could be an outtake from "Double Fantasy."

Alex said...

Damn! James beat me to pointing you towards "Somewhere Apart" which I've always thought sounded like a "Plastic Ono Band" outtake (but with a lot more psychedlia on the lyrics).