British rock and roll troubadour Robyn Hitchcock’s 2014 album The Man Upstairs is a mellow affair, heavy on the light acoustics and indebted to Americana folk music. It offers five new Hitchcock compositions, and five covers of songs by The Psychedelic Furs, Roxy Music, Grant-Lee Phillips, The Doors, and Norwegian indie-rock band I Was A King.
Listening to it, I’m reminded of Jonathan Demme’s 1998 documentary concert film Storefront Hitchcock, in which the Silence Of The Lambs movie director filmed the Soft Boys alumnus and celebrated solo artist playing to a small audience inside an abandoned New York City storefront. As he played, city passersby on the street stopped at the plate glass window backdrop behind the stage, cupped their hands against the glass, marveled over the strange lights and sound, and wondered what the hell is going on in there.
Here, from the comfort of your own listening space, you can still wonder what the hell is going on inside Hitchcock. The veteran songwriter, who shot to minor American fame in the 1980s with his band The Egyptians, creates songs that aren’t easily categorized, fusing elements of Syd Barrett’s cosmic imagery, Bob Dylan’s dusty folk narrative, and The Beatles’ psychedelic explorations. After listening to a Hitchcock piece, one might find himself in the deepest of thought, yet have little idea what that thought is, like a dream you struggle to remember.
The Man Upstairs is quiet, assured, and spiked with a rock and roll edge. At 61 years of age, Hitchcock’s voice is as rich and commanding as a hormonal teenager’s and his new compositions again battle for equilibrium between the oracular self and the cosmic powers that be. The purely Americana folk song “Trouble In Your Blood” cites the human condition to be “a well constructed shadow” while resigned acoustic strings and accompanying cello filter in like a foggy mountain breakdown pause for thought. “Comme Toujours” and “San Francisco Patrol” are both engaging quiet listens with a perfectly balanced harmony of vocal, guitar, and cello.
Grant-Lee Phillips’ “Don’t Look Down” is stark and haunting under Hitchcock’s arrangement, even more so than the original’s pastiche of dark colors. It sounds like a deadly balancing act on a high wire with its foreboding refrain and lyrics that must have delighted Hitchcock’s surreal comedic sense – “Buster Keaton and I danced out on the window sill/Ten stories high.”
Some of the covers are a bit ordinary. There are no great turns to The Furs’ “The Ghost In You” or Jim Morrison’s “The Crystal Ship”, although Hitchcock’s interpretation, more revering than explorative, fits well in the album’s introspective tone. Only once does he break out and rock, on the bluesy thumping new song “Somebody To Break Your Heart”, which adds a harmonica to the acoustic mix.
Folk artist Gillian Welch is responsible for the album’s cool cover art.
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