Release Date: Aug 26, 2014
Record label: Yep Roc
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Ding! Another record lands on the Robyn Hitchcock pile and it’s a bit different to his last two because alongside the original songs are several covers. Though his back catalogue with The Egyptians includes versions of Byrds classics The Bells Of Rhymney and Eight Miles High, Hitchcock’s solo releases have until now comprised pretty much all his own material. This new departure was partly down to legendary producer Joe Boyd and partly because, after 20 albums, Robyn is more confident about performing other people’s songs.
With a career spanning over 40 years, Robyn Hitchcock has reached that stage of life where he can afford to just do whatever he likes. Despite never really coming close to any sort of mainstream success, he’s pretty much revered as the Godfather of Psych-Rock thanks to his work with The Soft Boys, and has a back catalogue which is as sizable as the likes of contemporaries such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan or Tom Waits. The Man Upstairs is that rare thing – a project obviously close to Hitchcock’s heart, but one that remains accessible and commercial enough to attract a new generation of fans.
So many of Robyn Hitchcock’s songs owe their greatness to his wit and worldview. Over 35 years—first with the Soft Boys and then with the Egyptians, Venus 3 and solo—Hitchcock carved out his niche as a songwriter: clever, surreal, imaginative and poignant. So when his 20th solo album was announced as a folk record, mixing covers (both well-known and obscure) with a few originals, the first question became how Hitchcock’s singular artistic voice would show itself in the project.
“Just another singer-songwriter laying their freshest eggs” is how Robyn Hitchcock — and probably only Robyn Hitchcock — describes the business-as-usual approach to record making that he desperately wanted to avoid on his new album, The Man Upstairs. Luckily, producer Joe Boyd had a suggestion. Why not split the difference between a carton of homegrown eggs and the tired, full-blown covers album.
If you’ve seen The Lego Movie, the phrase “The Man Upstairs” has some ominous overtones; to everyone else, it’s just a euphemism for God. It’s not clear which connotation Robyn Hitchcock might have been shooting for when he titled his new album The Man Upstairs—after all, he’s no stranger to either religion or animation—but it’s likely there’s no overarching theme at play here. The veteran post-punk folksinger has assembled 10 songs, half of them covers, that don’t seem to mesh in any way other than the fact Hitchcock is singing them.
Robyn HitchcockThe Man Upstairs(Yep Roc)3.5 out of 5 stars Robyn Hitchcock is one of those rare artists capable of creating anticipation merely through the mention of an impending project. Over the course of his 20 or so albums – not including his numerous compilations of rarities, outtakes and demos, or, for that matter, his seminal efforts with the Soft Boys – he’s managed to dazzle and delight his swarm of fans who have long since become enamored with his particular brand of overt eccentricity. However, this time around, Hitchcock indulges himself by satisfying some apparently long held desires.
“I won’t miss you or your bones, you corrosive whisperer. ” “There is no substitute for completely cutting off from what is attacking you; as long as none of it has snuck into your space suit. ” “If you can’t face the red meat of your emotions, your life is unlived; your children will have to live for you.
Veteran pop eccentric Robyn Hitchcock has long looked to Syd Barrett as a key antecedent, so it makes sense for him to team up with "Arnold Layne" producer Joe Boyd for this collection of covers and originals. But Boyd's work with artists like Nick Drake is a better reference point here; the producer blends Hitchcock's gruffly expressive voice with acoustic guitars, melancholy cello and gentle harmonies from Norway's Anne Lise Frøkedal, often to gorgeous effect. Not everything clicks, but Hitchcockian takes on songs like Roxy Music's "To Turn You On," the Psychedelic Furs' "The Ghost in You" and his own "Trouble in Your Blood" are hushed and lovely.
Robyn Hitchcock sums up the impetus behind his 20th solo studio outing with an unusually succinct quote: “I’ve always wanted to make a folk record produced by Joe Boyd and now I have: thank you, universe!” It would seem that the serial surrealist's penchant for punctuating everything with food, flora, and sex metaphors does not extend to conveying the simple joy of working with the legendary producer of such iconic albums as Nick Drake's Bryter Later and Fairport Convention's Liege & Lief, just to name a few. Hitchcock applies that same newfound predilection for levelheadedness to the songs on The Man Upstairs as well, offering up five choice covers and five new originals that flirt with the fantastic, yet avoid an unnecessary trip down the rabbit hole -- even the Gillian Welch-illustrated, netherworld-fixated cover art feels relatively settled. The album's brightest diamond in the rough, a surprisingly moving and wistful take on the Psychedelic Furs' "The Ghost in You," appears right out of the gate, and like much of the material to follow, utilizes the talents of Boyd, cellist Jenny Adejayan, pianist Charlie Francis, and vocalist Anne Lise Frøkedal from the Norwegian indie pop duo I Was a King, all of whom, especially Frøkedal, whose ethereal harmonies are so (tastefully) omnipresent throughout, help to reign in some of the structural elasticity that sometimes has a tendency to undermine Hitchcock's all acoustic outings.
"Yet another elegiac record. It's reminiscent of I Often Dream of Trains," Robyn Hitchcock has said of The Man Upstairs, his 20th proper full-length as a solo artist..
Ever since Johnny Cash’s first American Recordings album, Rick Rubin has had a lot to answer for. As older artists get more venerable, it seems Rubin has entitled them to sound more vulnerable. Now every rapidly-ageing musician of any genre seems to feel compelled to make their “Rick Rubin record.” Robyn Hitchcock has never been one for vulnerability.
Robyn Hitchcock's latest release, The Man Upstairs, stands amongst his all-time best albums. His finest work in years, the opening three songs are stunning, mesmerising even, in their intimate beauty. And this is a tone he will flow back into again and again, sliding through the crests of a gentle oceanic tide. A consolidation of Hitchcock's artistic guises, the record sees Robyn interpreting the work of others alongside songs of his own in equal measure.
For his 20th (20th!) solo record, Robyn Hitchcock opted for a collection of covers and originals. The covers selection is mixed, with a stellar take on The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You” kicking off the record, as well as an inspired cover of Brian Ferry’s “To Turn You On,” but there is also a fairly staid version of The Doors’ “Crystal Ship” dragging down the album. According to Hitchcock, the origin of the record apparently came simply out of an excuse to work with the celebrated producer Joe Boyd, who has helped everyone from Nick Drake to Pink Floyd.