When Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme dismissed guest actor Robyn Hitchcock from the set of The Manchurian Candidate remake a week earlier than expected, could he have guessed that Hitchcock would use the six extra days before his plane was due to return to London to venture down to Nashville, hang out with long-time fans/folkies (David Rawlings and Gillian Welch), spend a week jamming to Dylan tunes, pull songs from the seemingly-bottomless Hitchcock notebook, hit the Record button, and birth Spooked, a serendipitous recipe of a recording if there ever was one? Hitchcock, disciple of surreal lyricists Syd Barrett and Bob Dylan, has released one of his most approachable recordings in years - thanks to a cohesive depth that Welch and (album producer) Rawlings supply through supportive guitar work and complementary harmonies.
From the opening track, “Television,” right through the closing “Flanagan’s Song,” there’s an underlying warmth pervading Spooked that harmoniously meshes with and grounds the weird and wonderful lyrics. These types of lyrics have prevented Hitchcock, over his twenty-five-year career, from becoming a major star. We know it’s silly for a man to be professing love for his television, but earnest guitar work and Welch’s evocative harmony vocals make this one of the most romantic love songs you will ever hear. “If You Know Time” is a history lesson as much as it is a love song, or an anti-war ballad:
| Robyn Hitchcock continues to expand the horizons of avant-garde songwriting…|
And the war that’s coming, setting good guys against good.
It’s always a good cause. We fight because we should.
You can cut them down like weeds, but you’ll never make them love you.
Don’t you know time? Don’t you know time at all?
“Everybody Needs Love” features Hitchcock’s impeccable guitar work (there are few that pick as good), and “English Girl” is a sentimentally twisted ode to wife Michele Noach, the Dark Princess, to whom Spooked is dedicated. “Demons and Friends” is a surreal a cappella number that would not be misplaced on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, which was somewhat of a breakthrough effort for Welch and Rawlings. The haunting “Creeped Out” is one of Spooked’s strongest tracks, thanks to Welch’s subdued drumming, a weird rhythmic guitar string swipe, and great lyrics. “Creeped out American girl. Creeped out by the blood you’re flowing. Tell the future every twenty-eight days. Everything is happening behind your eyes.” “Sometimes a Blonde” sounds like a Dylan title, but it’s all Hitchcock: dizzying, confusing, rambling, yet involving. Spooked does include a Dylan homage, though - the meticulous cover of “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door” feels like it was plucked right from the Time Out of Mind sessions. “Full Moon in My Soul” features some of Spooked’s most superlative lyrics. “I love you, madly. The past is over, and the present will be sadly. I’m out of here, I’m taking off. You can have my cigarettes, and mister you can have my cough. I’ve got that full moon in my soul.” “Welcome to Earth” is a funny little bit of Hitchcockian weirdness: a sales pitch to any alien species who might wish to vacation on our humble little planet. Spooked ends as comfortably as it began, with the dreamily melodic “Flanagan’s Song.”
Whether creating sublime weirdness with his former bandmates (the Soft Boys or the Egyptians), effecting subdued eccentricities with contemporary folkies such as Rawlings and Welch, or embodying the superb savant as a solo artist, Robyn Hitchcock continues to expand the horizons of avant-garde songwriting. One can only wonder what he will come up with next.