If Robyn Hitchcock had flipped out like Syd Barrett, dropped out like Captain Beefheart or broken down like Nick Drake, he would be immortalized as a visionary genius. Instead, Hitchcock has proven maddeningly sane and durably prolific, so the boxed reissue of these early solo albums by the former Soft Boy (plus a wealth of demos, B-sides and rarities) isn’t likely to extend his renown beyond his devoted following, though it does provide occasion to celebrate the uniqueness of his artistic achievement.
As a lyricist, Hitchcock is able to make what initially sounds like whimsy coalesce into a deeper, darker wisdom. As a musician, he puts the influence of so many profound inspirations — Beatles, Byrds, Beefheart, Dylan, etc. — through a psychedelic blender. As a singer, he can be simultaneously acerbic and warm, threatening and intimate. He gets under your skin.
I envy anyone who comes to this set as a Hitchcock virgin, as I all but was when I became obsessed with 1984’s I Often Dream Of Trains. I was then the pop music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, and Hitchcock was coming to town with his Egyptians to promote the album he’d recorded as a one-man band. So I listened to the release more attentively than I might have otherwise. And after the knockout concert, I listened to little else but Hitchcock, pulling out whatever I’d filed away without paying enough attention, seeking out whatever I’d never received.
I Often Dream Of Trains is the centerpiece here, sounding nothing like anything else anyone (including Hitchcock) has ever recorded, before or since. His solo debut, 1981’s Black Snake Diamond Role, is more of a transitional effort from his days with the Soft Boys, using the same musicians and more. 1990’s Eye is the most stripped-down of his solo releases, the naked “I.”
Each is also available individually, with a generous selection of bonus cuts highlighting all of the reissues. Yet the lure for fans is the double-disc While Thatcher Mauled Britain: Demos ’81-’90, available only in the box. I’d begun thinking of this treasure trove of 39 cuts, Robyn unvarnished, as Hitchcock’s Basement Tapes, before noting that his notes evoke the same comparison. Not only does Hitchcock have more of an encyclopedic appreciation for rock than most critics, he’s a more incisive critic as well.
(The label has promised a second Hitchcock box, and has made 1982’s Groovy Decay available as a digital download.)