The unrepentant folk-rocker ripples an acoustic guitar and contemplates his place in the pop universe: “Read in the paper/Saw a review/Said I was a visionary/But nobody knew/Now that’s been a problem/Feeling unseen/Just like I’m living/Somebody’s dream.”
That could be Robyn Hitchcock, reflecting on 30 years as a cult artist. But it doesn’t sound like him, does it? The former Soft Boy rarely expresses himself so directly; when he sings “I,” he’s usually assuming the persona of someone or something he couldn’t possibly be. Besides, all indications are that Hitchcock likes being a cult artist. He’s worked hard to stay semisubmerged, despite spending more than a decade (mostly in the ’90s) contracted to one of two indulgent major labels. Whenever mainstream acceptance beckoned, Hitchcock bolted—usually to make an album of stripped-down sorta-folkie songs that relied on acoustic guitar and a few friends.
Eventually, though, his pop-rock instincts would recuperate and he would record an unexpectedly accessible set. For example, the shimmering new Olé! Tarantula, his most outgoing release since 1991’s Perspex Island.
So it’s not Hitchcock who’s gazing into the mirror, considering his obscurity. In fact, the self-styled visionary who’s all alone with his guitar and voice is a man whose cult-artist status is arguable: Lindsey Buckingham. The guy’s actually had a few Top 20 solo singles, and if his albums are occasional at best, that’s because he keeps canceling them and ceding his new songs to his other project, Fleetwood Mac, which just happens to be one of the most commercially successful rock bands ever. If Buckingham’s feeling unseen, it must be because Stevie Nicks’ scarves keep fluttering in front of his face in the 20,000-seat arenas.
“Not Too Late,” which contains the career analysis quoted above, opens Under the Skin, which is Buckingham’s fourth solo album, and his first since 1992’s Out of the Cradle. The tune, which is nothing but voice and finger-picked guitar, is typical of the album’s style. Although some of the songs are lushly stratified, notably with layer upon of layer of vocals, the overall vibe is intimate. Reverb is one of Buckingham’s favorite studio embellishments, and Under the Skin is a sort of echo chamber in which the singer-songwriter can achieve a private grandeur. Fleetwood and Mac (drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie) play on two of these 11 tracks, and there’s a horn section on one, but the rest is all Buckingham—glossy, melodic, and a little too airtight.
Hitchcock once released a version of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” in which he recalled where he was the year the song was released. That was 1966, apparently also a crucial moment for Buckingham. Under the Skin includes two covers, both from that year: the Rolling Stones’ “I Am Waiting” and Donovan’s “Try for the Sun.” Both are showcases for Buckingham’s production skills, and touchstones for his vision, which melds British-invasion rock with California studio-pop perfectionism. Yet neither qualifies as an interpretation, let alone a personal one. They’re just well-constructed and plushly textured.
Sometimes, that’s enough. Such Under the Skin numbers as “It Was You” and especially “Show You How” transform elementary rhythmic hooks and complex vocal arrangements into the stuff of rapture. In that sense, Buckingham has recaptured the spirit of ’66: His songs sound fresh, vital, and enchanted with the possibilities of multitracked, amplified timbres. What they don’t do is reveal or—their sonic invention aside—surprise. Buckingham is a master of the gleaming surface, but he never quite goes where his album title promises.
Robyn Hitchcock’s last U.S. release, Spooked, was a collaboration with David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, those masters of counterfeit Appalachiana. Yet if the instrumentation was down-home—save for the electric sitar—the melodies were urbane and contemporary. That almost-extroverted set leads naturally to the mostly electrified Olé! Tarantula, which hops from Nashville to Seattle and hooks up with a new bunch of old pals. Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and Bill Rieflin (R.E.M., Young Fresh Fellows, Minus Five) are the Venus 3, the disc’s principal band, but onetime Soft Boys Kimberley Rew and Morris Windsor also appear, along with members of groups as disparate as the Small Faces and the Presidents of the United States. (XTC’s Andy Partridge also makes a disembodied appearance, having co-written one of the songs.) This is not Hitchcock in his solitary-troubadour mode, dreaming of trains.
That doesn’t mean that the singer-songwriter has forgotten about public transportation. One of the album’s more memorable couplets is “The Authority Box”’s injunction to “fuck me, baby/I’m a trolleybus.” What counts there, though, is not the “trolleybus” but the “fuck”—and the sitarlike guitars, which bend notes, sustain tones, and finally stage a brief lockstep procession to the song’s coda. Hitchcock has rediscovered sex, surrealism, and Byrdsian rock ’n’ roll.
This combination recalls the inspired period that culminated in Perspex Island, when new romance inspired Hitchcock to sing about passion with enthusiasm rather than alarm. In earlier days, he often treated lust as a form of affliction—most memorably in “Kingdom of Love,” which depicted mating as creepily entomological. Hitchcock rarely makes an album without something that evokes a natural-history documentary, and this time both the title tune and “Red Locust Frenzy” employ buggy imagery. (Technically, the natural historian notes, tarantulas are arachnids.) But most of these songs are more about people than insects, and they regard human intimacy not with dread but with high-harmonied elation. When Hitchcock enters the “Museum of Sex” to implore someone to “kiss me ’til there’s no tomorrow,” he makes it sound like a life-affirming form of oblivion. “Adventure Rocket Ship,” “Underground Sun,” and “’Cause It’s Love (Saint Parallelogram)” all climax with multiple voices cooing a single word, and those words are, respectively, “star,” “sun,” and “love”—not “fish,” “bones,” or “dead.”
Death has always been one of Hitchcock’s fixations, and he’s been accused of using the subject to shirk reality. So it’s notable that this album ends with a song about a stiff that’s devoid of whimsy or absurdity. One of the album’s folkier numbers, “N.Y. Doll” is a gentle tribute to Arthur “Killer” Kane: “One in a million/People touch you/How do I explain?” Written in the late bassist’s imagined voice, the song provides Hitchcock with yet another persona, but one that’s neither distancing nor trivializing. “N.Y. Doll” is a death song that doesn’t diminish life and an unexpectedly moving conclusion to an album that’s more than a return to form. Olé! Tarantula doesn’t just rediscover the joy of close harmonies and twin-guitar chime—it also puts them to the service of a worldview that’s gratifyingly uncultish.CP