From the opening Bing a bong a bing bong‘s of the first track “Television,” you just know that you’re in for a quirky album. But alongside the quirk is some stark and revealing beauty created by Robyn Hitchcock, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The latter two had been fans of Hitchcock’s for years and when Robyn went to see a Gillian Welch show in 2003, he became a fan of theirs. The trio met, exchanged mutual admiration and phone numbers, and decided to record together. The result is one of this year’s best singer / songwriter album releases of the year.
Many will remember Robyn Hitchcock as the lead for his band the Egyptians, and still others for his earlier gig in the Soft Boys. Few will know him as an actor, but that’s something he has dabbled in, appearing in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate this year. Regardless of where you know him from, it shouldn’t change your outlook on this new project. Spooked is a haunting (no pun intended) portrait. At times ironic, political, touching and cynical, the album is a quiet meditation, a gathering of Robyn’s thoughts at the time. “Television” is done so honestly and earnestly, that you forget it’s a song about the love between a man and his TV. “If You Know Time” has some of the best political lyrics I’ve heard this year, including all of the tracks off of Future Soundtrack for America. In it, Hitchcock sings:
“And the war that’s coming
Setting good guys against good
It’s always a good cause
You fight because you should
You can cut them down like weeds
But you’ll never make them love you
Don’t you know time?”
Gillian Welch’s harmonizing vocals are simple perfection. They are gorgeous enough to make one want to listen to her voice alone at times, and subtle enough for you not to notice at others. Hitchcock goes back to his Lennon Beatlesque pop style with “Everybody Needs Love,” which features deft guitar work by the trio. “Demons and Fiends” is somewhat of a doo-wop, almost a cappella affair, with very sparse strums of guitars interspersed amongst more thoughtful lyrics. “Creeped Out” is a sister song to “English Girl” which appears earlier on the album. This one however is about an American girl and how he is “looking for the animal behind [her] eyes.”
I refer to this album and the idea of Southern American music in my review of Elvis Costello’s new album. But whereas Elvis goes for the hard rocking sound of his namesake, Robyn is more comfortable with the bluegrass / folk sound that he found with his collaborators. Hitchcock can’t hide his thick English accent with his style of singing, but the music still has the twangs and bends that firmly fix the album as `American’ sounding.
The Lennon-ish style makes a return with the fun song “We’re Gonna Live in the Trees” before he slows it down again with the pretty “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door,” a song written by Bob Dylan. If you think the title sounds like the classic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” the song does too, albeit a little slowed down. The themes are the same, and Robyn, although not exactly sounding like Bob Dylan, does echo his ideas and rhythm and covers the song to perfection.
“When you think that you’ve lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more”
There is a short vignette called “Welcome to Earth” which really should be part of the Voyager Satellite recordings, waiting for an alien race to pick up its signal.
Take time to locate the exit nearest you,
Press One for Famine, Two for Pestilence
Three for Condoleezza, and Four for Death.
Please note that Pestilence closes at six.”
Like Elvis Costello, Robyn Hitchcock recently turned fifty. It’s quite interesting to me that the two would choose to do such Americana themed albums. The two act as alternating volume bookends for England’s take on America. Both are worth getting, but Robyn’s is a little more cohesive. His choice of collaborators was spot-on perfect and he has created a touchingly beautiful collection of music and lyrics. Hearing the last song, “Flanagan’s Song,” made we want to take another solo cross-country road trip, with his music on the stereo, watching the landscape creep by into oblivion.
Gillian Welch- Time (The Revelator)
Bob Dylan- John Wesley Harding
John Lennon- Imagine