With a career spanning over 40 years, Robyn Hitchcock has reached that stage of life where he can afford to just do whatever he likes. Despite never really coming close to any sort of mainstream success, he’s pretty much revered as the Godfather of Psych-Rock thanks to his work with The Soft Boys, and has a back catalogue which is as sizeable as the likes of contemporaries such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan or Tom Waits.
The Man Upstairs is that rare thing – a project obviously close to Hitchcock’s heart, but one that remains accessible and commercial enough to attract a new generation of fans. Produced by the fellow legendary figure of Joe Boyd (the man responsible for such classics as Nick Drake‘s Five Leaves Left, Richard & Linda Thompson‘s Shoot Out The Lights and R.E.M.‘s Fables Of The Reconstruction), on it Hitchcock has collected together a mix of original material and cover versions, recorded by Boyd in a stripped down, austere manner that recalls Johnny Cash‘s majestic American Recordings sessions.
The cover versions range from the well-known (such as The Doors‘ Crystal Ship or Roxy Music‘s To Turn You On) to lesser discovered gems like Grant Lee Buffalo‘s Don’t Look Down and Ferries by Norwegian indie-poppers I Was A King. If you weren’t aware of the originals though, they slot in so well next to Hitchcock’s own material that you’d swear he’d written every track gathered on this album.
The template is laid down right from the start with the sparse rearrangement of The Psychedelic Furs‘ track The Ghost In You. The synths and harmonies of the original are replaced simply by Hitchcock on an acoustic guitar – at times he seems to deliberately echo the vocal phrasing of Richard Butler’s, but he manages to make it even more reflective and wistful than the original. A similar trick is performed with To Turn You On, the slick and smooth ’80s stylings of Bryan Ferry‘s original replaced with something more insistent and, at times, sinister.
It’s always a risk to mix original material with well-known standards, but thankfully Hitchcock’s own compositions more than stand side by side with the cover versions. The pick of the bunch is undoubtedly Trouble In Your Blood, its unforgiving distillation of a troubled relationship reminiscent of prime-era Dylan, while the beautifully heartfelt Comme Toujours alternates lines sung in French and English over an evocative cello line from Jenny Adejayan.
Hitchcock is in terrific voice throughout, sounding equally at home on bluesy hoe-downs like Someone To Break Your Heart or on a folky version of The Crystal Ship. Best of all is Ferries, a gloriously breezy number which benefits from some beautiful back-up vocals from Anne-Lise Frøkedal, who sang the original version with I Am A King. Perhaps only Don’t Look Down fails to bring anything new to the party – it’s certainly a great song but perhaps doesn’t stand out quite as much as some of the other covers on display.
Recalling The Truth brings the album to a close, and features probably Hitchcock’s best vocal – it’s here that his long friendship with Boyd pays dividends as he knows exactly how to bring out the very best in Hitchcock’s voice. There’s a valedictory note to Recalling The Truth, as if looking back on times gone by and mourning the passing of better days. It’s a startling end to what is, at times, a startling album – one that will please Hitchcock obsessives and also provides a decent gateway for the uninitiated.