Robyn Hitchcock and I at the Commodore, 2017, photo by Erika Lax
So while I wait for Shufflemania, the new album by Robyn Hitchcock, to arrive in Vancouver stores, I've been listening to Hitchcock's music, thinking about what I love about it. There is more than one kind of pleasure to be had in Hitchcock's songwriting, though I think particularly, my attachment to his songs tends to correlate with how much I feel like I understand the lyrics. Not that that is exactly a prerequisite, because there are songs of his I do not understand at all, that strike me as quite mysterious and magical, more on which below; but my favourite of his tunes tend to be the ones that I don't feel entirely on the outside of; while songs of his I can make neither head nor tail of (like his new tune "The Raging Muse") tend to often feel like shoes that don't fit: I can admire them from without, but not being able to try them on and walk around in them limits how intimate my connection with them can be (this is a reference to a Bob Dylan song, btw, where he compares himself to a shoemaker, and as such, since Hitchcock is a fan of Dylan's, is meant flatteringly). I'm not exactly intimidated - I do not know know why there are fish in the grass, or what they have to do with a raging muse. It feels like an acid-trip image, really, but that feels like a bit of a trivialization, though I guess if Hitchcock HAD been on acid and found himself hallucinating fish in the grass (or even better had travelled to some part of the world where there are mudskippers or lungfish or other living fish one might encounter on land) it would be fair game for an autobiographical gesture in a song lyric. So I'm not complaining - the song is catchy enough, and agreeably weird, but short of my finding some sort of personal analogue for the experience he's singing about, it kind of just slides on by me.
By contrast, an example of a song I have a fairly good grip on, even if it doesn't have a huge personal resonance for me: "Queen Elvis," off his 1990 solo album Eye. (That tour was the first time I saw Robyn Hitchcock live, at the Town Pump, with NO FUN opening; in fact, in the photo at the top, taken the night Robyn opened for the Psychedelic Furs, I was trying to get his ear to tell him that I had brought David M. of NO FUN to the Commodore, that night, in honour of the three shows of Robyn's that NO FUN had played before back in the late 80's. I was very curious if Robyn remembered NO FUN and hot to suggest that if he was to play Vancouver again - sadly, no shows here this tour - he should get David to open. But Mr. Hitchcock was very busy, signing CDs, posing for selfies and so forth, and I never really got to have the conversation I wanted to with him. I was happy enough to get a signed CD and discover afterwards that Erika had snapped this pic!)
But let's look at "Queen Elvis" for a second. This is one of Hitchcock's most clearly meaningful songs, taking on gender non-conformity, queerness, celebrity, and both Hitchcock's own reactions to these things, and general societal reactions to them, too. I should imagine any trans- or queer person hears things resonating in the chorus, "Justify your special ways." I don't fully understand Hitchcock's motivations for writing it, if he was trying to balance out the apparent potshot at transpeople in "Uncorrected Personality Traits" from a few years prior (though nothing in his lyrics should really be taken at face value) or if he was just indulging in some weird flight of whimsy, inspired by something specific that he chooses not to let us in on. I get a bit puzzled, too, by the sudden apparent reference to Dylan ("everybody must get stoned"), since it is hard to imagine Dylan as Queen Anything, and am not sure what to make of the mention of landscaping (though according to the sole annotation to the song on Genius Lyrics as I write, Hitchcock did have a day job as a gardener at one point). The song is too complex, too shot through with ambivalences - is being "sculpted" (by whom, into what) a good thing or a bad thing? - to really work as a trans anthem or anything, but there's still overall a sense that you mostly know what he's singing about and can get on side with him.
There are also a few very accessible songs like that on his 2017 self-titled solo album, pictured above, which stands as among my favourite things he's done. "Virginia Woolf" is maybe the one you can fit your mind around most fully; even without having read Woolf, or Sylvia Plath, if you catch that he's singing about how both women killed themselves, there's not much mystery to be had from the song (you're welcome to contemplate why people kill themselves, but there's no cleverness getting in between the song and its subject, which I appreciate). "Sayonara, Judge," is another favourite - and while I do not know the specific liberation that Robyn is singing about, I feel like I do have a sense of the freedom that comes out of accepting you are a loser. It's not such a bad thing. The images are abstract enough to apply to a wealth of life situations, and if the specific inspirations are hidden, protected by a layer of poetry - who is this "Teddy Bear" of whom he speaks? - there's nothing really that elusive going on, emotionally, nothing that stops the song from feeling like maybe it's about you, say. It's a fine pair of shoes to walk about in.
But Hitchcock does more than that, as a songwriter; it's actually unusual for his songs to lay themselves so bare, and really, he has quite a gift at crafting lyrics from pregnant-seeming resonant images that are rich in feeling and flavour but are very hard to unpack into something didactic. All my favourite songs on Globe of Frogs, for example, do that - including the title track and "The Shapes Between Us Turn Into Animals." It's tempting to just be lazy and call them drug songs, along with "The Raging Muse" above, but this doesn't capture the magic of what his lyrics can do: "In a globe of frogs, the moth unfurls its moistened wings" is a very striking image, very concrete, and sends a little chill down your spine, maybe, the way actually watching a moth emerging from its cocoon, spreading its wings for the first time, might do, but while it touches on things magical and mysterious and so forth, I have no idea what it "means." What is a globe of frogs, even, and how did the moth get in there? Beats me. And as with "Queen Elvis," you get a lyrical juxtaposition where an image acquires its own opposite: in "Queen Elvis," it's the idea that society (or someone) will sculpt you til you "bleed" or "breathe," depending on which chorus you listen to, whereas in "A Globe of Frogs," Mrs. Watson has children who have been "certified insane" (a bad thing, presumably) while herself having been certified "as good as gold," which we're assuming is positive, unless it means she's going to be used as a dental filling. It's tough to eke out meaning from lyrics when an image contains its own opposite within the same song!
...to say nothing of those other times where Hitchcock drops an image you simply were not expecting, which can be sometimes quite startling ("if I was man enough I'd cum on your stump," for example, in "Wax Doll," which always reminds me of the Annie Sprinkle/ Long Jean Silver amputee-porn arrest, but which could mean something quite other for Hitchcock; who knows?). Or, going back to Eye, there's "Executioner," which seems like a dark but fairly accessible breakup song, almost a banal thing for as rich a songwriter as Robyn, until it climaxes in an out-of-the-blue potshot at Live Aid. It's a bit of a spit-out-your-drink moment, when you hear it, and changes your relationship with the rest of the song, which turns on a dime from the brooding to the hilarious, and leaves you wondering which side came first and/or was more important to the singer. Was it a break up song he got bored of midway through and decided to subvert, or was his target always Live Aid, or was he just writing away and find himself taken with a ridiculous option for a rhyme? You had THOUGHT you knew what the song was doing, but you find yourself delightfully non-plussed. Such gestures keep you on your toes, make it hard to wear any given song out...
Shufflemania appears to be a mixture of both of Hitchcock's extremes, maybe tending a bit more to the obscure compared to his last LP. My early favourites off the album are "Socrates in Thin Air" and "The Sir Tommy Shovell," and typically, they're the ones that fit my feet best. The first - there's a fun rock video for it, linked above - is a kind of mournful observation of what has happened to our intellectual life, written around Socrates' death sentence. He's vulgarized and trivialized in the marketplace ("look what they did to him," with the video showing him decked out with shades and a cap), finds himself no match for the herd ("there were more of them than him") and tempted by egomania, maybe, as he finds himself surrounded by "mediocre minds" (which I take to be a reference to the Einstein quote, "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds"). The end result is that he's gone, lost in "thin air," with society making no apologies or even claiming responsibility. It seems pretty relevant to the state of our society intellectually, and again, requires less that you have read Socrates than you know how he died. We might ask why Hitchcock casts himself in the role of executioner, in the video, but that's a bit extraneous to the lyrics, which are quite accessible, really.
There's also probably plenty to be unpacked in "The Sir Tommy Shovell," though I was sad this morning to discover that there is no public figure named Tommy Shovell (or Thomas Shovell); I had hoped that there was a real person that I might read about here, whose deeds or history or values would underscore the song. Is Hitchcock even thinking of a specific person, and disguising their name? I don't know, but the fantasy pub in the song sounds pretty appealing - a nice mixture of the high ("Sir") and low (the "shovel"), and definitely better than "the Racist Loser," who also has no obvious referent in the real world (but is easier, somehow, to provide faces for, things being what they are). This one I probably like as much as I do because of the punchy music, which brings you back to the days of the Soft Boys and "Rock 'n Roll Toilet," for example. There's also plenty of energy to be had in "The Shuffle Man," mind you, but I like that one a bit less because I really have no clue what it's about. Individual lines pack a punch ("don't forget to function/ don't be one of those" - definitely not!), but overall I'm lost. Agreeably so, but I'd need to have Hitchcock himself to explain things to me. What is Shufflemania?
Surely he has been asked that question in recent interviews, but I have read none of them, and think trying to talk to him myself would be quite terrifying, since this is one smart fella, and if he wanted to explain his lyrics, he'd probably include a decoder ring in the Cracker Jack box, y'know? One feels he might have contempt for decoder rings, want to protect his own lyrics, his own experiences; why else would he have translated them into code in the first place?
Really looking forward to the new album, in any event. Come back to Vancouver, Mr. Hitchcock! Soon! (And hurry up and get here, Shufflemania!).