Twenty years have elapsed since we first saw Robyn Hitchcock live, performing with the Egyptians at Foellinger. And it’s been about that long since he’s had a backing band with a chemistry as good as that of the Venus 3, his current ensemble. Peter Buck, Bill Rieflin, and Scott McCaughey, along with a cast of occasional friends, have risen to the challenge of fusing Robyn’s unusual musical visions into powerful, polished rock.
The past three years have been a new peak in Robyn Hitchcock’s 30-plus-year journey through peaks and valleys of his life in music, love and loss, the prosperous cities of major-label studios, and backwater villas of his low-budget barn recordings. The new release, Goodnight Oslo, is a fragile rock recording wrought by a team of devoted band members, including the Venus 3, Morris Windsor, Sean Nelson, Lianne Francis, Colin Meloy, Terry Edwards, and Jenny Adejayan.
While Goodnight Oslo is not as triumphant as the Venus 3’s previous — Ole Tarantula — it’s strong, dark, and cryptic, and as satisfying as anything else he’s recorded since his work a decade ago with violinist Deni Bonet in the Moss Elixir/Mossy Liquor and Storefront Hitchcock material (released as a concert film, a CD, and a double LP, each containing a different selection of songs).
The new record is a dark pool of fathomless depths beneath its still, shining surface.
Harmonica, ghostly slide guitar, banjo, floating strings, keyboards, stabbing horns, oud, santoor, and unidentified noises emerge from the arrangements. The many contributing vocalists lay harmonies on thick, coating the words in layers of meaning. The best songs are dark, alien, electric, sharply drugged, bleak, understated, with a flatness, a muted affect, that tells of a spell of emotional poverty, withdrawal, with allusions to abuse and addiction, a life left behind, and suppressed sorrow at the clarity of maturity and loss of so much youth.
We like to think this is Robyn Hitchcock’s most personal album. But of course we can never know, as his songs always keep one foot in the imaginative. We prefer to read the record as a sequential life story about the divide between a bright present and dark past, haunted with regret and pleasure.
“What You Is” makes a break from a person’s past into the present. “Saturday Groovers” remembers a teenage decadence that seems forced in retrospect. “Hurry for the Sky” is about the yearning ambitions of a young rock star desperately impatient for some measure of measurable success. “Sixteen Years” is a fearless and searching look at a prolonged period of illegal drug addiction, with “TLC” exploring a dependence on legal antidepressants.
“Up to Our Nex” (from Jonathan Demme’s 2009 film Rachel Getting Married — itself a story of addiction and recovery in which Robyn Hitchcock appears — may be about courtship and marriage, with “Intricate Thing” now exploring the nuances of sustaining a long-term relationship after that rush. “Goodnight Oslo,” my favorite song Robyn has recorded since 1998’s equally dark “I Don’t Remember Guilford,” returns to a moment when a break had to happen between youth and adulthood, between the energetic chaos of narcissism and the measured pace of maturity.
Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 at Logan Square Auditorium (April 17, 2009)
The concert was held at Logan Square Auditorium–a somewhat elegant, if faded, ballroom. While there were no seats, it would be an exaggeration to describe the event as “standing-room only.” Hitchcock concerts tend to draw a manageable crowd of devoted fans (picture a room of a couple hundred cool, serious Chicago rock fans all solemnly singing the words “binga binga bing bong” — it’s kind of comical, kind of touching).
The show opened with Robyn playing solo, performing a song he dedicated to Barack Obama: “I Got the Hots” on acoustic guitar. This obscure choice of a 1980 Soft Boys song set the standard for when the Venus 3 joined him onstage and propelled the rock machine into motion. They neglected the album they were ostensibly touring to support in favor of songs drawn from every corner of Robyn Hitchcock’s catalog, including two Soft Boys songs, three from his first solo album, and obscurities never released on a proper album.
Compared to our last Robyn Hitchcock concert two years ago in Nashville, Peter Buck was animated and in better spirits (and with longer hair), and Robyn Hitchcock seemed euphoric. The mood was good, filled with smiles and an apparent genuine warmth between the members of the band, notably Peter and Robyn. In his wonderfully surreal banter, Robyn dropped a few quotes of “poetry” from Jim Morrison, and then proceeded to explain what it’s like to be dead, and the karmic jet lag the reincarnated must experience. This led into an obscenely slow and plodding “The Lizard.” Peter Buck was in the zone for this number: his eyes rolled back in his head and he looked as blissed out as a lizard on a rock stoked in the sun.
It was as close to the stage as we’ve ever managed to get for a Robyn Hitchcock show, and as perfect and vibrant a performance as we could hope for. We sensed the band felt as good about it as we did. “This concert is melting away like ice,” Robyn lamented, “but I’m glad you could be here.” With amusing modesty, he let us know that his music’s “DNA is essentially Bo Diddley, with a few Scottish folk songs mixed in.” The only downside of the polish was a lack of spontaneity in the arrangements, an exception being a long, angular lead-in to “Madonna of the Wasps” with Peter and Robyn on dueling guitars strangely reminiscent of 1980s King Crimson — an introduction that seemed to leave the rhythm section of the band baffled and amused. The affectionate chemistry between Peter and Robyn was underscored when they came out to perform the first song of the encore as a duo: Robyn introduced “Birdshead” as the first song the two of them recorded together.
Living is a fight against gravity, a crawling toward desires we cannot know or name or reach. After decades of following Robyn Hitchcock, we finally got as close to him as we needed to. The happiness in that performance of songs about decay was infectious, and we are still diseased with it. Something in the old ballroom, the northern proletarian casualness of Chicago, the fecund spring and new American presidency, and a band who is happy to play together without fear of success. We could all die tomorrow — all of us— and this show will still have happened.
I Got the Hots
I Often Dream of Trains
What You Is
Brenda’s Iron Sledge
Out of the Picture
Only the Stones Remain
Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis)
Hurry for the Sky
Madonna of the Wasps
Up to Our Nex
Kingdom of Love