British singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock has written that "In this world of doubt, one thing is certain for me; that I will go on writing songs up to and--I hope, through heavenly means or diabolical--beyond the day I die." Whether he is able to fulfill the latter is anybody's guess, but certainly the former pledge is a welcome one, particularly after the release of his well-crafted latest album, Spooked.
Spooked almost happened by accident. Hitchcock had seen Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform in London, and particularly enjoyed their song "Look at Miss Ohio," so he was startled to discover that there was an actual Miss Ohio named Robyn Hitchcock (it turns out that the 1996 crownholder was actually named "Robyn Hancock") and the coincidence partially inspired them to get together for a session in Nashville. In six days, they ended up recording what would become the core of Spooked.
On the surface, Hitchcock would seem like a odd choice for Welch and Rawlings to work with--Hitchcock is avalanche of non-sequiturs and free associations, and a man who, on his website's autobiographical timeline, lists as the first event after his birth "I see a dead chicken." But the collaboration works surprisingly well. Offering sparse but warm arrangements surrounding Hitchcock's fascinatingly odd lyrics, Welch and Rawlings are the only other musicians besides Hitchcock and some bass assistance on two tracks by Joey Spampinato of NRBQ.
The album's first song, "Television," begins with Hitchcock crooning "binga-binga, bing bong" over an acoustic guitar and sings a briefly glimpsed tale of modern alienation. The song's speaker addresses his television set as if a lover, imploring it, "Television, say you love me, television say you care/Loneliness is my profession, show me those who are not there." The song, like many on the album, is given a rather Dylanesque arrangement—a mutual hero of both Hitchcock and Rawlings—and the vocal harmonies are subtle but haunting.
Although on Spooked Hitchcock explores loneliness and one of his favorite subjects, death, he also has gotta let his inner hippie out with a sitar-flavored "Everybody Needs Love," he waxes romantic on "Full Moon in My Soul," and follows the evolutionary chain backwards in "We're Gonna Live in the Trees."
And Hitchcock's writing is getting even sharper with age (or, at least, the sudden hairpin-turns are getting somewhat more negotiable). The album closing "Flanagan's Song" makes for a beautiful song, packed with startling imagery. "All the young girls look like ravens as they flock around the pool," it begins, "And they peck at their reflections in the shadows of men's drool."
The one cover on the disc is a version of Dylan's "Trying to Get to Heaven" (here called "Tryin' to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door," featuring some slight lyrical adapatations; I don't think Dylan's original had a line about "the dinosaur's waiting room"--I think that's pure Hitchcock).
Musically, Spooked sounds exactly like what you'd expect merging the acoustic side of Hitchcock's sound with the rootsy feel of Welch and Rawling. Rawling's delicate picking and dobro merges fluidly with Hitchcock's swirly acoustic style, and Welch's voice is an achingly sweet foil for Robyn's, smoothing out some of the rough edges.
It's a distinctive change from Hitchcock's past rather stark albums on the acoustic side, and I don't think Welch fans would ever envision hearing her repeatedly intone "crackle, crackle, pop, pop" under such non-sequiturs as "maybe cats and ravens have ideas too, but they keep them to themselves" (as is heard on the short spoken-word piece "Welcome to Earth"). Spooked is a treat for fans of either artist, or for the musicially alert curiousity seeker.