Robyn Hitchcock

Jewels for Sophia (Warner Bros. Records)

Too often, a Robyn Hitchcock album is like a series of one-night stands: a lot of screwing around that never leads to anything meaningful. Inexplicable choruses follow free-association verses, with a flurry of gibberish obscuring everything but the chord changes. And when he does hit upon a lucid thought, it takes far too long to get there, the path littered with rambling interludes and mindless self-indulgence. The only point seems to be Hitchcock's own amusement. It's never been a case of the jokes not being funny -- Hitchcock just never lets anyone else in on them. Everything ends up sounding unfinished, if only because you don't have the heart to finish any of it.

The pattern continues on Hitchcock's latest, Jewels for Sophia, a wandering collection of songs recorded in three different locations with three different groups of musicians, one including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck. More than ever, his eccentricities come off as calculated affectations, a kind of look-at-me weirdness concocted to stunt any attempts at seriousness. For instance, "The Cheese Alarm" is ostensibly a commentary on world hunger, yet it could be an ode to all the cheeses Hitchcock has loved before. He gets around to making sense of his willful nonsense only in the last verse ("Half the world starving and half the world bloats / Half the world sits on the other and gloats"). "Viva! Sea-Tac" could have been commissioned by the Seattle chamber of commerce, had Hitchcock not added the tag line, "They've got the best computers and coffee and smack." With a melody stolen out of Nancy Sinatra's boots, the song seems like it was born only seconds before, especially when Hitchcock brings it to a stumbling halt by telling the band, "OK, you can probably stop."

The fumbled ending is included here presumably to make Jewels for Sophia seem more casual, like we're merely listening in on Hitchcock jamming with some friends. Of course, that image is blown a bit when the too-soon ending shows up on the lyric sheet that's included with the album; nothing like planning your mistakes. Most of his attempts at social commentary are mistakes. Hitchcock is at his best when he's tap-dancing around love, such as on the modern limerick "Elizabeth Jade," when he gets dirty but keeps it clean, sort of: "Oh Elizabeth Jade, I love the way your triangle's displayed." And "Mexican God" may contain his most honest lyric to date, describing his broken heart: "At least when I die, your memory will too." Listening to Hitchcock may be like panning for gold with an orange peel most of the time, but at least you can be sure to find a nugget every once in a while.

 
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