For 30 years ex-Soft Boys man Robyn Hitchcock has been crafting album after album of impeccably peculiar songs that ooze charm, wit and a very English kind of melancholia.
His latest is the third instalment of a trilogy of albums recorded with similar musicians, of which the fine Ole! Tarantula was the first. The second instalment, to be called Propeller Time, is still awaiting its fate. It is apparently rather different in mood to the two albums that bookend it, and therefore it was felt that Goodnight Oslo would make a more appropriate follow-up to Ole! Tarantula.
As opposed to Propeller Time, which was devised as a kind of west London Basement Tapes, these two albums are very much the efforts of a classy core group consisting of R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck on guitar, occasional R.E.M. member Scott McCaughey on bass (the name of Hitchcock’s band The Venus 3 is a typically playful variation on the name of McCaughey’s own lot, The Minus 5), and drummer Bill Rieflin, yet another frequent R.E.M. guest (he also has a past in Ministry, Swans and Nine Inch Nails).
Recording of Goodnight Oslo started at Hitchcock’s home, and continued with sessions at the end of small tours in Seattle and Tucson, Arizona. In between, the recorded songs were left untouched for long periods of time. Gradually and spontaneously, a voice was added here, a trumpet there, a guitar-jangle removed somewhere else and replaced with a cello.
Thus, Gallon Drunk, Faust and Tindersticks‘ Terry Edwards added trumpet and sax, Amir El Saffar played extra trumpet and santoor, Hitchcock’s former bandmate Morris Windsor weighed in with vocals, as did Sean Nelson, Lianne Francis and The Decemberists‘ Colin Meloy. Finally, Hitchcock’s wife Michèle Noach supplied the eerie and utterly appropriate cover image – the dark figure of a man on a glacier, looking down – strangely – into his unopened umbrella.
Given the musicians involved, it comes as no surprise that Goodnight Oslo shimmers with janglingly melodious guitar textures. The subtly underplayed and laconic What You Is is perhaps not the ideal opener, but it is a serious grower, complete with a one-off Bob Dylan-esque backing vocal and plenty of subtle interplay between the various guitars as well as a few well-timed interventions from a ’60s style Hammond. “I walk a thousand miles to be alone,” Hitchcock sings next, in the unforgettably beautiful, uptempo shuffle Your Head Here.
The wry Saturday Groovers revisits the Soft Boys’ old brand of power pop. Appropriately so, since it is a sly dig at incorrigible party animals of a certain age for whom every Saturday’s a groove. It is almost certainly the first song in pop history to speak of heart disease and gout.
I’m Falling boasts another terrific chorus – as does every other song that follows. The highlight, however, comes at the very end. The dense and deeply hypnotic title track Goodnight Oslo could well end up on the list of class A drugs the next time the government gets round to discussing such matters.