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"I feel beautiful," sings Robyn Hitchcock, stretching out his syllables on the song of the same title, "because you loooooove meeeeeee." The sentiment is innocuous enough, couched in his characteristically sweet yet complex vocal overdubs, some soft acoustic guitar strums, and the melodic ringing of a hammer dulcimer. But this perfect tune, from the English pop legend's new album, Jewels for Sophia, sounds too sickly for baby-making music. When he drones, "People never celebrate the things they've got/Honey, without you I wouldn't have a lot," he almost whispers, sounding nearly helpless. The singer who once sang, with his post-punk group the Soft Boys, that he wanted to be an anglepoise lamp, here compares himself to the tomato plant he's watering; he's doused by love. But there's something wrong here, and in this quirk lies the songwriter's genius: Hitchcock is capable of the simplest, most memorable choruses, but his songs are never simple. On "I Feel Beautiful," he seems desperate, perhaps drunk, perhaps drowning in that tomato water.
Despite his enduring cult following, Hitchcock has never made much of an impression in any particular pop genre. True to the Soft Boys' name, he wasn't punk enough for punk rock. When new wave broke in America, he began exploring solo acoustic work. And while Hitchcock often sang alone onstage, his obsessively surreal songs--about sex between drowning statues, lobotomies, coffee for his wife and his dead wife, and the idea that policemen might be capable of singing--were too damn weird to catch on with the folk crowd.
So where does this leave the thin-voiced 47-year-old performer? Skirting the edges of the music industry for nearly 25 years, with almost as many records to show for it, most of them snatched up with equal enthusiasm by his relatively small but intensely loyal circle of fans. Still, Hitchcock is meeting and greeting new alt kids by touring with this summer's Flaming Lips/Sebadoh Sixties-style cabaret, the 1999 International Music Against Brain Degeneration Revue, and backing his most invigorating and mischievous record in years. And Jonathan Demme's long-delayed concert film, Storefront Hitchcock, could help the singer start making sense for American audiences whenever it's finally released.
Not that Hitchcock, who minces no words about corporate greed in interviews, isn't happy with the recognition he has garnered through the years. Born in Paddington, England, Hitchcock moved to Cambridge in the mid-Seventies, and formed the Soft Boys soon after. The band played elaborately constructed, guitar-driven pop, etched with carefully enunciated lyrics that waxed kinky about getting "wedged with a couple of clones in a rock 'n' roll toilet," and "dangling on a leather thong/I hang inverted all night long." But in the aftermath of the Sex Pistols, the Soft Boys were tagged as too clever and cloying (perhaps, that is, too soft). Their biggest Cambridge crowds rarely exceeded 300. But the band's third record, Underwater Moonlight, did find its way onto American college radio. Among the album's standout tracks were the dramatically harmonized anthem "I Wanna Destroy You," the paranoid "Insanely Jealous," and the itchy "Old Pervert" ("I won't do you no harm/I just want to show you what's in my fridge"). But soon after this splash, the Soft Boys called it quits, leaving Hitchcock to continue solo. Later he formed a backing band, the Egyptians.
But Jewels is Hitchcock's first record since 1981's Black Diamond Snake Röle to rely heavily on a band, per se, though most of the players were brought in to play songs they'd never heard before. The result is 12 coy but affecting cuts that have none of the worried production polish of Hitchcock's Egyptian output. He worked with Americans Kurt Bloch and Tad Hutchison from the Young Fresh Fellows, and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, but crucially managed to rope in former Soft Boy and mad guitarist Kimberley Rew. "After 17 years it seemed safe for us to go into the studio again together," he explains cryptically in his press release.
Though Hitchcock is given to clever explanations for all sorts of matters, he describes the process behind his newest release in the language of the music cliché: He felt like making a rock record again. Working with a makeshift backing band was something of a relief, the singer says over the phone from his home in London. "You can have all these one-night flings, or whatever the term is," he says. "You don't have time to sort of get sick of, or used to, each other." The spontaneity is evident on the album. "Viva! Sea-Tac," an upbeat ode to Seattle, manages to cram a lot of fun into a few short verses: "People flocked like cattle to Seattle after Kurt Cobain/And before him the rain," he sings. But that's just a preamble to the splash fight in his stream of consciousness: "Long live everything in Washington State...May they live to a million years/May they reproduce until there's no room to go anywhere/Clustered under the Space Needle like walking eggs on arms and legs." (Hitchcock says he has performed the song a few times out West to much amusement.)
On "Antwoman," the singer describes his ideal of femininity. "Oh she rises and she hops and then she eats you," he sings, and "I ain't gonna argue with a dame like that." But oddest of all is "The Cheese Alarm," a paranoid lecture on the dangers of the cheeses that lurk in your refrigerator that comes off like a more anxiety-ridden Ogden Nash. "Rough pecorino and moody Ram Hall," he snarls. "Stop me before I just swallow it all." When I ask Hitchcock what he was thinking about when he wrote a song that shamelessly glorifies "Roquefort and Gruyère and slippery Brie," he warns that the tune, true to form, is not as whimsical as you might think. "European cheese is much stronger than yours, and probably something more to obsess about," he says. "Some people are powerless before cheese. It's a serious song, serious in terms of what happens to you as you put things through yourself. In the end, you're just an appetite. You're appetite on legs. That's all that's left of you. Discipline is the moral of that song."
It's hard to believe that a man who has tirelessly created and performed so many songs over the years would have problems with discipline, but apparently cheese isn't the half of it. "I never sit down and write songs," Hitchcock confesses. "I always figure I should be doing something else. To me, writing songs is an indulgence. I do it when I sort of sneak off from whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing." While he says he doesn't know exactly what that might be, he says songwriting is one of his lowest priorities. Among other things, he is busy managing his career and finishing his first novel, The Ballad of Jacob Lurch. "There are always many obligations. Writing songs to me is never an obligation. I would never tell myself I had to write another song. I think if I felt like that, I'd never write another."
Robyn Hitchcock will perform solo on Monday and Tuesday at First Avenue as part of the1999 International Music Against Brain Degeneration Revue featuring the Flaming Lips and Sebadoh. Doors open at 8:00 Monday, 4:00 Tuesday; (612) 338-8388.