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Underneath the dulcet pop sensibility of Robyn Hitchcock's vast repertoire lurk some potentially unsettling images: having one's soul dry-cleaned, balloon people exploding, supping with the Devil and men with lightbulbs for heads, to name a few. And while such lyrical offerings might compel the curious to probe the seemingly twisted mind of the 46-year-old Briton, the undertaking would likely yield surprising results. Robyn Hitchcock is as enigmatic as ever, but he's also slightly more sane than you might think.
"Details magazine analyzed my reactions to a Rorschach test several years ago," he says. "Apparently, I came out as the most mentally sound of the whole lot of musicians and minor celebrities." Using his forthcoming CD, Jewels for Sophia, as an inkblot, that's a fair reading. Though it carries the usual volumes of striking and peculiar tropes, Jewels is among the most happy-go-lucky of his seventeen (depending on your accounting system) solo albums. "I hear it back, and it's not a bad mirror to stand in front of," agrees Hitchcock. "I like how this record reflects me. I don't seem that bad of a proposition."
Hitchcock the artist, the man and the "proposition" is something of a charming nihilist, a character with roots in his youth. At an age when most lads and lassies were playing cricket and climbing trees, a young Hitchcock was already formulating a constructive cynicism. "Christianity gave me the creeps when I was about five," he recollects. "I think my childish antennae were wise to this sort of groveling, abject, life-hating element that seems to me to infuse Christianity and the whole idea that Jesus died for you so you owe him one."
Neither this pervasive pessimism nor a comfortable, middle-class upbringing would stifle Hitchcock's hyperactive imagination. Though an art-school dropout when he began bewildering the folk-music-club crowds of Cambridge in the mid-Seventies, Hitchcock's creativity has served him well ever since. His father's devotion to traditional English folk had an impact on Hitchcock, but his truest influences were Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Kinks and the Who. On the wilder side, Hitchcock cites the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart, both better predictors of the sound he would eventually concoct with his seminal new-wave band, the Soft Boys.
"Beefheart and Lou Reed both had very good lyrics and unusual guitar. They didn't have people playing Eric Clapton-y licks," he explains, as he adds Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd to the mix. "I think you have to be inclined before you're influenced. It's not like I would have been a soul singer if I hadn't heard Syd Barrett. I would have been in a much more Bob Dylan mold. But I was an English boy from the home counties and he was a Jewish kid from Minnesota."
Even though they broke up in 1983, the Soft Boys' influence on those pre-grunge college-rock days cannot be underestimated. A ragged-yet-melodic pop band with psychedelic tendencies, the Soft Boys' sound contained multiple personalities ranging from the rustic grooviness of the Grateful Dead to the fiercely punk mechanics of the Buzzcocks. Consequently, they were largely misunderstood in their day, and perhaps by no one as much as themselves. Some say they were the right band at the wrong time. Nevertheless, one of the two full-length studio albums they released during their active years, 1980's Underwater Moonlight, is a certified rock-and-roll masterpiece.
"We were sort of the grand old forerunners of REM and the Replacements and 10,000 Maniacs, all that jangle-pop stuff," says Hitchcock. "I suppose the Soft Boys were probably the missing link between the Byrds and REM. But actually all that stuff comes from the Searchers anyway."
Due in large part to the path the Soft Boys had cleared, Hitchcock reached the peak of his popularity in the mid- and late Eighties as a solo act backed by the Egyptians, finding a much more receptive audience in the U.S. than at home. "I make my living here. God bless America!" he jokes. With albums like 1986's Element of Light and 1988's Globe of Frogs, listeners--and MTV viewers--became acquainted with Hitchcock's moving targets of meaning and buoyant melodies. Colleges may not have offered courses of study in his verse, but those two albums and the others to follow provided fertile ground for burgeoning Hitchcock scholars. "Someone was trying to tell me the other day that a song called 'Cynthia Mask' [from Eye] was actually about the decline of the British Empire, which I thought was pretty amazing," he says. "That's like looking at clouds and saying 'Is that in the shape of a camel? Or maybe it's a duck?'"
Hitchcock's creations are essentially candy for the brain as well as the ear. His greatest feat, however, lies in proving that narratives can be intellectually refreshing without being literal. Clever nonsense, indeed. "My art, be it written or sung or drawn, comes pretty directly from the unconscious. I very seldom give myself a topic. There are exceptions. But I usually have no idea what it is I'm about to write or sing or say," Hitchcock offers. "Basically, they're probably messages from me to myself and sometimes they're quite heavily veiled."