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I've been listening to this record constantly since I got it last week and I think it is maybe the best rock and roll album I have ever heard. The songs individually are masterpieces, and the connecting thread running between the songs and through the album -- well it's enough to take my breath away.
So that said -- I have gotten into my head that I want to write about the record, as a first step toward writing about Robyn Hitchcock's music. I want to write about it song by song, communicate some of the ideas it puts in my head. That is a project I am going to be taking on over the next couple of weeks -- this link will take you to the thread of posts about the record. A little background:
Recently when I was getting interested in Robyn and looking around You-Tube to see if I could find any of his performances, I clicked on an MTV acoustic performance of "Birds in Perspex" and I thought That is about the most beautiful thing I have ever heard out of Robyn's mouth. Turns out the rest of the record is equally miraculous. Here is some of what I find by searching Google for information on the record.
Pete Dooley hates it as "an American album by a British band".
Mark Fleischmann thinks it is Hitchcock's best album since "Black Snake Diamond Role". Robyn tells him that he wrote the album around the time he was getting together with his wife Cynthia Hunt.
3 songs from Perspex Island made the charts, according to Chris Kocher.
Paul Shrug says that Hitchcock "released Perspex Island exactly at the moment I needed it". I didn't listen to the record then (1991) but I am finding that the record is exactly what I need at this moment.
Ira Robbins (and/or his co-author Michael Pietsch) doesn't thinkPerspex Island sounds much like Hitchcock (a sentiment I am finding bizarre) but still calls it "poignantly top-notch".
posted evening of April 9th, 2007: Respond ➳ More posts about Music
Listen to the beginning -- the choral voices come in slow, gaining force, then bang! comes the beat, and Hitchcock singing to you about seaweed and descent. This song gets you moving and movement is going to be a constant force on this record. Maybe I will find today, maybe I will lose tomorrow, he tells you, and you're in his moment, rolling across the golden sand and out into the waves. Floating and sinking are all you can do. ("The big red sun that won't go down") Listen to what Hitchcock does with his voice, the way he sings the chorus. Listen to the way the background vocals introduce him. This is what I want rock and roll to be.
Well the nub of what I'm wanting to know about Hitchcock, is how come I lost interest in his music for a long time? This song is important in that investigation, though I had never heard it until I bought this record. Here's why -- when I was talking with Jeremy the other day, he said this was the song that had turned him off from Robyn Hitchcock; and when he was saying that I was thinking about "If You Were a Priest" from Element of Light, and "Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis)" from Globe of Frogs, and that they had played the same role for me -- I don't know how to identify that role beyond calling the songs "pop" and "not cryptic".
When Oceanside closes it recapitulates its opening, the growing chorus of voices cut off with a strong beat, which this time around just reverberates and fades away* -- when it reaches silence you get the first beat of "So You Think You're In Love". A striking characteristic of this record is the choreography of transitions from one song to the next -- I can only describe it as "elegant".
So -- pop, yes. Not cryptic, at least not in the in-your-face way that his first records are -- although listening if you listen to the lyrics in the verses you will find plenty to be puzzled about. It's a silent majority, the crime of the century. Are you sure that it's wise, no you probably ain't.
The song is short and sweet, from my current location I can find nothing in it to dislike, and much to appreciate. It's hard for me to see how songs like it would have been the cause of my losing interest in Hitchcock.
And we come to the song that first made me want to get this record. It is so beautiful, my heart just stops. Love is clearly going to be a major concern of the record. The poetry contained in the first verse -- "Well I take off my clothes with you/ But I'm not naked underneath/ I was born with trousers on/ Just about like everyone" -- grips me so tightly, I haven't been able to get past that much to the rest of the song as more than an auditory experience -- although I hear a lot of snatches of lyric that sound like they could be really meaningful. As an auditory experience this song is fantastic. Listen to the vocal arrangements, Hitchcock and the backups singing to each other and with each other. Listen to the mind bending instrumental midway through.
The image Hitchcock had in mind, according to this interview*, was of birds contained in clear plastic paper-weights like the ones "they sell at seasides with crabs and shells in them" -- the birds are "a frozen moment waiting to happen". I haven't gotten my head around this song enough yet to see that -- I'm focussed on the psychological stuff still; but that "frozen moment" feeling was part of my response to "Oceanside". So: tension on the record between movement and stasis. How does love fit into that dynamic?
*Another great line from the interview, "Perspex Island is a sort of portable Avalon."
This song starts out with a hard down beat and a rocking groove -- it pulls you out of the reverie of "Birds in Perspex" and gets you dancing fast. This is the third song in a row about love, here love is a form of prayer. This and "So You Think You're in Love" are probably the danciest and shortest tracks on the record -- they set the stage for some heavy contemplative music in "Birds in Perspex" and "Vegetation and Dimes". Again, tension between movement and stasis.
(Robyn says the song is "about ultra unbelievable love. And the quest for it. That's all.")
The chorus of "Ultra Unbelievable Love" fades out and is replaced by a steady, hypnotic rhythm. When Robyn's voice comes in it sounds like the locomotive whistle above the beat of the rails. Let's jump off the train... This song might feature the most compelling vocal work on the record. The lines starting with "What are we waiting for" are rivetting, with Robyn practically screaming -- outrage? fear? "In the city of Lies,/ Real life is a -- crime..." Check out that pause before "crime" and then the change in register -- this is one of the things I find utterly attractive about Hitchcock's singing, the tiny, unpredictable syncopations before the long notes. (This is some of what I was trying to get at the other day.)
This song speaks to me perhaps least of the songs on this record. I haven't been able to make much of a connection with the lyrics -- that said it is a sweet listen and serves a distinct purpose in separating the grim beauty of "Vegetation and Dimes" from the demonic wackiness of "Child of the Universe". Let's spin it.
A melancholy song. Hitchcock's voice is working its magic in an especially plaintive manner. There's much in common musically with the rest of the record, and a very nice beat; but not a lot to make this song stand out on its own. Not until the end anyway, where the chorus of wailing voices catches my attention.
Here is a live performance of Lysander, at Maxwell's (Hoboken, NJ) on March 26, 2005.
Sounds like a carnival at the beginning. Hitchcock comes in strong, he's close to screaming on the first verse -- "Everybody misses you but/ Nobody shoots..." -- I'm loving the way he pronounces "shoots". 2nd verse: "You're descended from someone but/ It sure ain't the apes..." an excellent line it must be said. This song is a party.
This song does "bitter" pretty well, not as well as "Positively 4th Street". It is a stepping back from the manic energy in "Child of the Universe". Not really that much to say about it except that I think the arrangement of the background vocals is really stunningly good. I'm getting a pattern here of a high-energy, high-content song followed by an easier, less meaningful one. And the song which this one leads into is going to be one of the real highlights of the record.
Here is a live performance of "She Doesn't Exist" at The Bottom Line (NYC) on Hallowe'en of 2003.
Ride! This song, along with "Oceanside" and "Birds in Perspex", forms the spiritual core of the record -- movement across a warm, beautiful landscape, by turns inviting, undemanding, threatening. Movement towards elusive love. Movement in the instant, with stasis immediately behind you and before you.
"By the end of which a billion creatures yet unborn will/ Die..." is almost the archetypal Robyn Hitchcock lyric -- the long, incantatory run of short syllables, the pause, the long-held syllable. That really rocks my boat.
The chorus of this song is one of the most beautiful lyrics on the record. Like several other love-related lyrics on the record, it looks a bit trite written down but in the context of the song, really powerful.
Here is a live performance of Ride at The Bottom Line (NYC), on Hallowe'en of 2003.