Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Album Review: Robyn Hitchcock-"Love From London" (2013)

Robyn Hitchcock, "Love From London," 2013.

Robyn Hitchcock’s latest album, “Love From London,” came out on March 5th. As usual, it’s an excellent album full of more Hitchcockian songs about love, fruit, and insects. “Love From London” is Robyn’s first album on the Yep Roc label since 2009’s “Goodnight Oslo.” That fact makes 2010’s “Propellor Time” and 2011’s Norwegian-only release “Tromso, Kaptein” seem like transitional works in between the two more major statements of “Goodnight Oslo” and “Love From London.” While I enjoyed both “Propellor Time” and “Tromso, Kaptein,” I think “Love From London” is a stronger album than both of them. I think “Propellor Time” in particular seems weaker in retrospect, as the songs on that album seem to be leftovers from 2006-7. Robyn was shown working on songs that ended up on “Propellor Time” in the 2007 documentary “Sex, Food, Death…and Insects,” but then “Goodnight Oslo” was his next album, and featured none of these songs. Which makes me think that Robyn held the songs on “Propellor Time” back for some reason, maybe because he felt they weren’t up to snuff? Who knows? 

“Love From London” is a very good album. To me, it has a different sound from the albums Robyn has done recently with his backing group the Venus 3. I like the sound on “Love From London,” as much as I love the Venus 3 albums. All the drums on “London” are artificial, which I think works well on this album. It gives Robyn’s music a slightly more modern sound. Jenny Adejayan plays the cello on “Love From London,” as she also did on “Tromso, Kaptein.” The addition of cello brings a new sonic color to Hitchcock’s palette, and gives the music a nice psychedelic vibe. 

“Love From London” opens with the almost ominous piano strains of “Harry’s Song.” The first line of “Harry’s Song” is “Nothing answers like the ocean,” which is nicely echoed by the sound of the ocean that closes the album. I heard Robyn sing “Harry’s Song” at the Dakota last fall, and I was struck by its beauty when I heard him sing it live. The song’s refrain of “I don’t know anything about you” could be a commentary on how difficult it is for people to actually connect with each other in the digital age. 

“Be Still” has a more upbeat, jaunty, jangly sound. The song is about the narrator trying to figure out more about a mysterious woman. “Be Still” has some lovely lyrics, here’s the final verse:

“Her hair is dark as berries and her skin is charcoal brown
She gazes to the future out to where the sun goes down
To where the night is falling on a lover, or a friend
Somebody’s beginning is just someone else’s end”

“Stupefied” also has a catchy, poppy sound, with bright piano chords outlining the song’s melody. “Stupefied” has some of my favorite lyrics on the album that keep getting stuck in my head:

“Ain’t no honey back in Norway
Ain’t no kroner in your pants
Must have blown it in the doorway
On those sugar coated ants”

Why does this verse get stuck in my head so much? It’s difficult to say, part of it is the mystery of the lyrics. We have a reference to Norway, and some of Robyn’s songs have referenced Norway recently, most notably “Goodnight Oslo.” (He even recorded a Norwegian language version of “Oslo” on “Tromso, Kaptein.”) A krone is the currency of Norway, so we’re in Norway and we’re broke. And we spent our money on sugar coated ants. This sounds like a ridiculous way to spend one’s money, if you ask me. But it brings to mind the image of someone selling sugar coated ants in a doorway, as though they’re contraband. “Hey, buddy, need some sugar coated ants?” I just like it, and I like the way Robyn’s voice caresses each letter as he sings “pants” and “ants.” 

One of Robyn’s early songs, from “I Often Dream of Trains,” was called “I Used To Say I Love You.” Now, nearly thirty years later, we get Robyn’s take on the simple song title “I Love You.” The song has a heavier sound than the previous two tracks. The song begins with Robyn simply singing “I love you, I love you, I love you” over a rock backing. Befitting its simple title, “I Love You” also features some simple and straightforward lyrics:

“Real love is generous, there’s nothing it withholds
It won’t desert you ‘cause you’re feeling nervous or you’re old
Every second that you get to spend together is pure gold:
I love you”

The heavier rock sound continues with the next track, “Devil on a String,” which is anchored by a funky bass line. Robyn sings breathily, almost dreamily on this song. I have no idea what the song is about, frankly, but it’s a fun listen, featuring lyrics like:

“Salvation pie, salvation pie
You gotta get a slice before you die”

Sure, everybody needs salvation, especially when the devil’s around.

Side two of the album opens with one of my favorite songs, “Strawberries Dress.” It’s a very sexy love song. Again, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about, but I like the feeling of the song, I like the world it conjures up. “Strawberries Dress” has some lovely cello playing, and some vivid imagery:

“Testing your power
I dream in the rain
A fine young sprite
Naked from the navel downwards
I see you kiss the sun”

The narrator of the song seems under the spell of a woman, as he sings:

“You-I’m so weak with you
I’m scared that you’ll explode
Or walk away”

“Death & Love” is a song about, well, death and love, two of Robyn’s favorite topics. “Death & Love” features swooping synths that give the song a somewhat icy flavor, as Robyn sings:

“I can hear you talk my language,
Talk the tongue of love and death”

“Fix You” is an insistent rocker, and it’s about as political as Hitchcock gets. The lyrics deal with someone facing financial ruin. Robyn could be addressing a person in the song, or he could be addressing America, asking:

“Now that you’re broke
Who’s gonna fix you up?”

“Fix You” seems to comment on the global financial crisis of 2008, as Robyn sings:

“Well they sell you this stuff with the money that you never had
Then they want it all back
They make you redundant and blame you for being a slacker
While the financial backer
Is taking a call with a strawberry mousse”

“My Rain” is a slower song, featuring lovely guitar work from Robyn. It has a somewhat mysterious feeling, as it talks of the power of rainfall. 

The album closer, “End of Time,” seems to be Robyn addressing death, with the chorus of:

“Take me
Take me
I’m ready for the end of time”

I hope that Robyn isn’t really ready for the end of time, he only just turned 60, and he should have a lot of years of great writing ahead of him. One of my favorite lines in the song, and on the whole album is:

“Macy’s opens up at six
You can get some sixty-second feelings for yourself”

To me this line means that through commercialism we can buy some quick thrills and pleasures, some “sixty-second feelings,” but that ultimately these things don’t mean very much. “End of Time” features some lovely synth strings, giving the song a different feeling from most of Hitchcock’s work. As the song starts to fade out, around four minutes in, we hear the sounds of the ocean, and then a song fragment whose only lyrics are:

“Love from London
Love from London
Over here”

This is the only reference to the album’s title. I think that “Love From London” is Robyn’s message of hope and good vibes coming out of London to the rest of the world. Eventually that song fragment fades out and we’re left with the sound of the ocean to close the album. “Love From London” is a very strong album from start to finish, there are no throwaway songs. For me “Love From London” keeps Hitchcock’s late-career winning streak going. I think that his albums over the last ten years have been very strong, and “Love From London” is one of his strongest.


Uncle E said...

You've got me excited about this one! Very complete review, my friend! Ta!

Uncle E

Mark said...

Thanks E! Yeah, it's a pretty great album.


Holly A Hughes said...

I'll second that! It's interesting that he got a heavy rock sound on several songs, despite not having the Venus 3 involved. On others, the sound is a little folkier, a little more in the I Often Dream of Trains mold. The lyrics however are pure Hitchcockian absurdity, which you know I loooove.

Uncle E said...

I bought this last week, due to your review and Holly's endorsement and I absolutely love it. I am really fond of Jewels For Sophia, and this reminds me a bit of that album. So far this is one of my favorites of the year, maybe even my favorite. Thanks, guys.


Mark said...

E, I'm happy to hear that you're enjoying the album so much! I think it's a very strong set of tunes from Robyn. "Jewels for Sophia" is a really good album. "The Cheese Alarm" and "Viva! Sea-Tac" are two of my favorites from that album.