The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Robyn Hitchcock
The Man Upstairs Aug Stone , August 28th, 2014 11:56

Robyn Hitchcock's latest release, The Man Upstairs, stands amongst his all-time best albums. His finest work in years, the opening three songs are stunning, mesmerising even, in their intimate beauty. And this is a tone he will flow back into again and again, sliding through the crests of a gentle oceanic tide. A consolidation of Hitchcock's artistic guises, the record sees Robyn interpreting the work of others alongside songs of his own in equal measure. He's never been a stranger to the cover version. In 2002 there was the double live collection of Bob Dylan songs (Robyn Sings) and in recent years he's performed entire album gigs of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and Hunky Dory amongst others. Live sets have included 'Everyday Is Like Sunday', 'Peggy Sue', and plenty more. He even recently joined Johnny Marr onstage for a rendition of 'Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want'. On The Man Upstairs, Hitchcock has achieved that peculiar feat of having you wonder if you prefer the cover to the classic original.

A gorgeous take on The Psychedelic Furs' 'The Ghost In You' opens the album. Ever so slightly slower than the Furs version, cello plucking out that gentle synth melody (later picked up by piano), blending seamlessly with the acoustic chords behind it. The songs he's chosen seem made for these arrangements. Robyn's voice is in top form - close, confident, finding a balance between being both personal and detached enough to fully convey each song's meaning. The conscious production decision of a single vocal track, no doubling allowed, paid off in spades. Soft backing vocal's, courtesy of I Was A King's Anne Lise Frøkedal, further enhance the delicately plush atmosphere, hovering like spectres sensed along the edges of an illuminating flame. This is especially true on the two most beautiful songs Hitchcock has written in ages – 'San Francisco Patrol' and 'Comme Toujours'. The former sees Robyn running through that city's streets with the alluring refrain of "I can't take my eyes off you". The one-third French, two-thirds English 'Comme Toujours', with its arresting high held notes, is said to have been written with Bryan Ferry in mind. This isn't the only time Ferry will pop up on the album. 'To Turn You On' is much more intimately romantic than the Roxy Music original. And sonically there is nothing to resemble that version, Robyn taking the chords and melody and making them his own.

Could it be just a coincidence that there's also a tune titled 'Ferries'? This gem perfectly captures dreamy late summer/early autumn evenings of small coastal towns. Originally by Norwegian indiepoppers Anne Lise Frøkedal and co.'s I Was A King, the acoustic setting and more relaxed pace here opens up the song and shows its full potential. A lovely tune and highlight among the highlights. Grant Lee Phillips' 'Don't Look Down' sees a move to an effected electric guitar, a beautiful sway through a bright lit night. Its dreamy outer limits delineated by the punctuations emphasising the end of the verse. Again the harmonies (here Hitchcock's own) are worth mentioning. And Frøkedal's voice returns over another solo electric guitar for the similar-in-feel closing original 'Recalling The Truth'.

The idea behind the record came from legendary producer Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd, Vashti Bunyan) who suggested making "'a Judy Collins album' such as Elektra would have released in 1967 – part well-known favorites, part personal discoveries, and part originals." Hitchcock himself has stated that he has "always wanted to make a folk record produced by Joe Boyd" and the pairing has indeed proved most successful.