Robyn Hitchcock’s new album, The Man Upstairs, is a nearly perfect collection of songs tracing love’s relationship to transience, death and loss. Which is quite a surprise, actually. While listening to it, I often found myself wondering, “How is this a Robyn Hitchcock album?”
I’ve known and even loved Hitchcock as a pleasantly eccentric English songwriter since his 1988 album Globe of Frogs. I’ve always likened him to a post-punk, power-pop Syd Barrett or Soft Machine frontman Kevin Ayers. Hitchcock gave voice to a grotesque and surreal menagerie of trademark subjects: love songs to wasps, talking frogs, balloon men. At its best, his material can transcend that silliness through the sheer force of his magnetic hooks and sometimes savage performances.
This personal cosmology sometimes overwhelmed the material — there’s a fine line between charming and irritating — but Hitchcock is an unparalleled talent, and he’s stated in interviews that his more lyrical material doesn’t get the same attention as the surreal stuff. And so it was with me. Starting with his early band, the Soft Boys, Hitchcock released a number of tremendous albums — peaking with 1980’s Underwater Moonlight — and their reunion in the early 2000s was a surprising creative triumph. (I saw their Bowery Ballroom show in 2002 and loved it.) His solo career probably reached its popular apex with Globe of Frogs, which featured R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and the popular college radio track “Balloon Man,” but he’s been releasing well-crafted albums consistently since then, and has a large group of heavy-hitter friends who appreciate and celebrate his work. Jonathan Demme made a concert film, while Gillian Welch and David Rawlings collaborated on his 2004 album Spooked.
Hitchcock’s songs can be lovely and stupid, sometimes in equal measure. And that’s not necessarily a criticism. There’s all kinds of amazing song subjects that one can tackle: “Wooly Bully,” “Monster Mash” and “Rock Lobster,” to name just a few. There’s a long, rich line of idiocy in rock & roll and Hitchcock has tilled a lush patch of it.
But he’s abandoned that impulse here, and the resulting album manages to be modest in its approach while wrestling deftly with the big themes of death, loneliness and loss. As such, it’s one of the most satisfying albums of his long and storied career.
For this, his 20th solo album, he’s paired with the legendary producer Joe Boyd, whose work with the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan are obvious precedents here. There’s a philosophy of austerity and immediacy woven into the album’s fabric. The arrangements are spare and mostly acoustic: some cello, guitar, piano, the occasional electric guitar solo, along with occasional backing by Norwegian singer Anne Lise Frøkedal. The vocals were recorded mostly on the first or second take, and the performances are intimate, full of the tiny audio flaws that are usually cleaned up by the ProTools nightmare these days.
His choice of covers is surprising (and made me reinvestigate the originals), starting with the opening track, “The Ghost in You,” originally performed by the Psychedelic Furs. “The Ghost in You” sets the album up thematically; the narrator sees the “ghost” of his love beyond the person, his love’s death is the transcendent, permanent thing. It’s a perfect song to lead an album with elegiac themes, and the simple production strips away the pop coating that was needed to bring the original Furs song to the masses. We’re left with the song’s lyrical essence, and it’s a small revelation.
On The Man Upstairs, Hitchcock uncloaks the dark core of each song he chooses to cover, finding a sadness that the pop arrangements of the originals often obscured. Take, for example, his version of Roxy Music’s “To Turn You On.” The original is frothy, weary and dramatic, but as is often the case with Bryan Ferry, there’s a strange and possibly sinister undertone beneath the decadent exterior. The production and performance by Hitchcock reveal the character’s loneliness and longing.
The other covers are astounding as well. His reading of Grant-Lee Phillips’ “Don’t Look Down” surpasses the original, and he brings a pathos and depth to the Doors’ “The Crystal Ship” that I could not have anticipated. I’ve always found the Doors to be extremely overrated, almost a comedy lounge act that’s wearing hippy costumes. I never liked the bombast of Jim Morrison and the Doors, but Hitchcock mops up the sludge of the original product and his version allows the underlying pathos of the lyrics to emerge.
Within the album’s frame, a character starts to build, and it’s a self-portrait. It feels like Hitchcock is piecing together moments, fragments of emotional light from his own past, and working through other writers’ songs to illuminate the album’s larger themes of death’s presence within each of us, the ephemeral nature of love and the pieces of each relationship that cleave to us as they pass, and the nature of loneliness as it relates to memory.
But it’s not just the covers that impress. The Hitchcock original “Trouble in Your Blood” is a meditation on a suffering friend or lover who seems to have something poisoned at their heart. With Blakean references to a “worm in your rosebud,” this song extends the thematic thread of impermanence Hitchcock explored on his covers into his own songs. It’s a gorgeous recording and performance by the band, as all of these songs are. I don’t want to lean too heavily on the lyrical content — though it’s a fruitful place to set down — because this album has it all. Great singing, great playing, great songs and an earned wisdom at its center.
I’m surprised and delighted to say that I’ve discovered two of my favorite Hitchcock songs of all time on this album: the devastating “Comme Toujours” and the slippery closing number “Recalling the Truth,” which is about everything but. The performances and arrangements are rich and compelling, the lyrics play on the tension between words that suggest eternity and a reality that’s less dependable. I highly recommend you seek out these songs.
The Man Upstairs is a modest yet emphatic commentary on the mystery of love and mortality. The titular phrase never appears in the album’s actual lyrics. Perhaps there’s a “man upstairs” who has a greater meaning for us, but we’re left with these small jewels of experience to worry as our own ghosts slowly but irrevocably assert themselves. This is an album where Hitchcock’s potential as a songwriter and interpreter has been met and exceeded.