Robyn Hitchcock – The Man Upstairs
By Christopher Hollow
Robyn Hitchcock’s voice is a blender. And it doesn’t matter if he’s singing the disparate songs of Roxy Music, The Doors or the Psychedelic Furs – that fabulously English voice can mix, sift, grind and emulsify anything into sounding like Robyn Hitchcock.
The Man Upstairs is Hitchcock’s 20th solo album and sees him team up with producer Joe Boyd, famed for his work with the Incredible String Band, Sandy Denny and early Pink Floyd. It’s not the first time they’ve collaborated – Hitchcock was part of Boyd’s Nick Drake Way to Blue tour and they also did a show together around Boyd’s Swinging Sixties memoir, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s.
The record’s template came from Boyd, who wanted to make The Man Upstairs play out like a mid-60s Judy Collins LP à la Wildflowers. Half-originals, half-covers, guitar, cello and that voice.
As with Judy’s albums, the covers are the easiest entry point but for those expecting tracks along the lines of Hitchcock’s usual Bob/Beatles/Byrds/Barrett fare, there are some pleasant surprises.
The former Soft Boy proves just as comfortable singing the dazzling verse of a precocious 21-year-old Jim Morrison [“The Crystal Ship”] as he is doing “The Ghost in You” by the Psychedelic Furs.
He takes on another distinctly English songwriter/interpreter, Bryan Ferry, and manages to do what Ferry always did with his best re-workings – turn a song inside out and give it a whole new identity. “To Turn You On”, which comes off the high-gloss Roxy Music production Avalon, is not as overtly chic [no fretless bass]but still has plenty of class.
Hitchcock also shines a light on a song called “Ferries” by Norwegian duo, I Was a King, and gets the writer, Anne Lise Frøkedal, to sing harmony throughout the rest of the album. The version of Grant Lee Phillips’ “Don’t Look Down” is spare and beautiful and is the album at its most affecting.
Meanwhile, we know Hitchcock’s own songs are cover-worthy.
Recently, Galaxie 500/Luna mainman Dean Wareham released a fabulous 7” vinyl version of “Love” [from Hitchcock’s 1981 solo debut, Black Snake Diamond Röle]. But who would cover the songs off The Man Upstairs?
“San Francisco Patrol” is slow and haunting and would be a great doo wop number as done by The Flamingos. “Somebody to Break Your Heart” ups the pace and could be flipped nicely by Jonathan Richman. The half-French “Comme Toujours” is strictly for Kevin Ayers while the highlight is “Trouble in Your Blood”, which sits comfortably with Hitchcock’s best.
The Man Upstairs appears to be Hitchcock talking to God. At 61-years-old, maybe it’s a good time to do that. It could definitely be called an autumnal record, but then what Hitchcock record hasn’t been?