In rock’n’roll, there are two models for multi-album creativity. Breeder reactors feed on their own energy and keep producing fissile material that glows in the dark — think of the Beatles between ’64 and ’69, or the Rolling Stones between ’68 and ’72, one great album leading to the next, until the core began to melt. And then there is the bubbling spring that keeps bringing such pure goodness from a mysterious place underground you can only sit back on the mossy bank and marvel. That’s the model that accounts for Robyn Hitchcock, who more than 30 years into a brilliant, deceptively steady career, may have just produced, in Tromso, Kaptein, his best album ever.
Robyn Hitchcock says (see post below) that when The Soft Boys began, they wanted to be a mix of The Beatles circa Abbey Road and Captain Beefheart circa Trout Mask Replica. I would have thought them a mixture of Never Mind The Bollocks and Ummagumma, but no matter. Over a career in which it would seem natural that bands like the dBs and REM would admire if not directly emulate him, and a quirky director such as Jonathan Demme would not only make a movie about him but also have him play a role in The Manchurian Candidate, Hitchcock’s music has been both sui generis and perhaps best compared to a folk-rock version of the Kinks with the occasional foray into the psychedelic boogie of the Quicksilver Messenger Service. For Hitchcock isn’t simply a brilliant writer of beautiful songs, he’s also a thrilling lead guitarist whose British eccentricity is always somehow grounded in real rock’n’roll. Yet his strength, too often, has been his weakness: an inability to stay serious… too many songs about insects instead of human emotions. But perhaps no more.
Beginning five years ago, when Hitchcock began to record with The Venus Three (a band that included Peter Buck on second guitar — what does that tell you?) he has put out a collection of albums (with those and other musicians) that, for anyone else, would have been a career in itself. Ole Tarantula led to Goodnight Oslo, which begat an antecedent collection entitled Propeller Time, which has now brought us Tromso, Kaptein. It is not an exaggeration to say that this latest album is the best of Hitchcock’s late career output. It is possible this is the best thing to bubble up from the deep spring of creativity that has been flowing since the Carter Administration.
Mostly acoustic (there’s an electric bass, Hitchcock only occasionally plays electric guitar here, and if there is a dominant instrument, it’s cello), Tromso, Kaptein is a stunning collection of moody folk-pop with enough hooks to land the Loch Ness monster if it dared wend its way through a distant fjord. We challenge you to download “Old Man Weather” and then not devour the whole damn thing. There is, thankfully, no reference to Trout Mask Replica, though the sheer pop ambition may remind you that Abbey Road was recorded in an 8 Track studio, and even in this diminished age, where an artist of Hitchcock’s rank produces an album of this quality for an obscure Norwegian label, the tools available allow such a craftsman to artfully produce a masterpiece on the cheap. We don’t know precisely what Hitchcock’s obsession with Norway is, though we love the fact that he’s now re-released the song “Goodnight Oslo” as “Goodnatt Oslo,” and sung it in Norwegian. Robyn Hitchcock is the Richard Dadd of rock’n’roll — a British eccentric who might rather be painting miniature fairies, but who has now the clarity of mind to give us an album with little irony, all beautiful and artisanal folk rock glistening like a spring-fed stream.