October 28, 2008
Record Review: Eye
1990 | Twin/Tone
I don’t really know if Robyn Hitchcock is an undiscovered treasure, of if I’ve been living under a rock for decades. Surely, chances are the average listener is at least peripherally familiar with a fraction of his catalog – countless bands have taken a pass at “I Wanna Destroy You,” the one truly sterling moment Hitchcock’s first band, The Soft Boys, produced. Their lone album, Underwater Moonlight, hinted at Hitchcock’s promise as a songwriter, but never quite coagulated. No, it’s the later, less celebrated stuff that really knocks it out of the park.
Though Hitchcock has spent most of the past several decades working with various, quasi-celebrity backing musicians, including Jon Brion, Peter Buck and Gillian Welch, he has also taken the occasional solo foray, recording entirely solo acoustic. Eye, released in 1990, between a series of albums by the Egyptians (as in Robyn Hitchcock and the…) falls into the latter category. Entirely based around his warm, reverb-washed acoustic guitar and the occasional piano, Hitchcock uses the studio as a jumping-off point – at many points through Eye’s track listing, it’s easy to forget that this is just one guy singing and playing.
Opener “Cynthia Mask” plays like chamber folk, making one wonder what Syd Barrett might have sounded like as a fortysomething, had he kept his act together. “Certainly Clickot” and “Clean Steve” recall third album-era Velvet Underground, all manic piano, idiosyncratic guitars and layered, contrasting vocals. “Queen Elvis” and “Executioner” go a more traditional, sad sack folk guy feel, not unlike goopy stuff I don’t really like (Ryan Adams’ Love is Hell is a good example of when dour folk songs are done well), but Hitchcock’s sense of humor shines through, making even the most bitter, lovesick ballad crack with wit. “I know how Judas felt, but he got paid / I’m doing this for free, just like Live Aid,” goes the coda on “Executioner,” all pathos, but with a clever grin buried underneath.
Eye may not be the best of Hitchcock’s albums (though I challenge anyone to come up with a stronger set), but it’s the one that most often finds its way onto my stereo. An excellent companion piece to similar albums Luxor and I Often Dream of Trains, Robyn Hitchcock’s Eye is definitely recommended.
by Brook Pridemore