The Charming Oddball

Gavin McNett reviews Robyn Hitchcock's album "Moss Elixir".

Published August 5, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Robyn Hitchcock has long been master of the mischievous non-sequitur,
arch-stylist of the incongruous rhyme. He's been a charming oddball and a
sane Syd Barrett, childishly endearing and pervert-creepy, acid-damaged and hyperlucid,
cunning and naive. He's been a conscious eccentric, essentially, and
many have accused him of not having worked to potential all these years because of it.
He's blown lots of moods with deadpan one-liners and squandered lots of
good hooks on songs with silly premises. His jokes, at the last, aren't
always good. For every masterpiece like "Underwater Moonlight" (1980), where he
spins a fairytale of statues that come to life and then wrecks everything in a single line
by having them eaten by a giant squid, there's another, like "Queen Elvis" (1988),
where his big twist -- Elvis as a woman -- is just a groaner. But even so, Hitchcock's
eccentricities have always been supported by a solid core of craft.

At his best, Robyn Hitchcock has nuance and depth, hooks and textures,
and his style is instantly familiar -- although it's impossible to pin
down just what or who he reminds you of. His grainy, nasal drawl could be John
Lennon's, but it isn't. His chord progressions could be Roger McGuinn's,
but they're not. His whole neo-psychedelic, crypto-'60s style points
with both hands, grinning, at Syd Barrett. But Barrett's often
boring, and Hitchcock hardly ever is. He's too sharp, too modern.
At his best, he writes perfect pop songs that are detailed enough for deep
listening, which is a rare pleasure. On "Moss Elixir," he's in his best form in a
decade, and while his lyrics are as sharp-angled and sly as ever, there's hardly a
groaner anywhere to wreck the experience -- which is a rarer pleasure still. He's
working closer to potential now than at any time since the dawn of the '80s. But he's
doing it on a shoestring.

"Moss Elixir" is his return to grass roots after a long, rollercoastering
attempt at a slicked-up pop career. His backup band, The Egyptians,
splintered in 1994, at which time he decided to go it alone and began
poking about in various studios, patching together the songs that are
collected both here and on the vinyl-only companion album, "Mossy Liquor."
The present CD is more than half solo acoustic -- which is usually the sign of an artist
dangling at the end of his creative tether. Of the rest, half is solo electric -- which
is usually a good reason to put on a Billy Bragg record instead. But Hitchcock pulls
it off. Overlaid guitar, string, horn and vocal tracks keep the sparser songs from
sounding impoverished, and build the more thickly-written ones into miniature epics.
But it's the songwriting, mostly, that carries the day. Not every song is great;
several, like "Heliotrope," start slowly enough to risk being skipped over a lot. But
every song is engaging.

The arrangements are often odd, but they feel complete and they're seldom
overcooked. "Filthy Bird" is wide and strange, with electric violin swirling around
a bare acoustic guitar. "The Speed Of Things" meshes layers of electric and acoustic
tracks into a chiming arabesque, and "Sinister But She Was Happy" moves against
a rhythm of clanking bass guitar and tambourine. Only "The Devil's Radio" falls into
clutter, with trumpets chattering in the middle distance, and a pointless organ track
underfoot, and wacky space noises filling up the spaces between the verses and
choruses. Of the three songs that have a full band, "Alright, Yeah" and "Beautiful
Queen" should be hits, but probably won't be. Hitchcock says that Nirvana knocked him
off the alternative charts back in '91. The Nixons and such will probably keep him
off in '96. But we can dream.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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