Flesh Cartoons: Robyn Hitchcock’s Eye at 30

In 1990, the chief Egyptian casts his vision towards further fancies

Robyn Hitchcock Eye Collage (Art: Ron Hart)

Robyn Hitchcock was an eccentric auteur from the very beginning. His initial band of note, The Soft Boys, allowed him to establish a sardonic, psychedelic template that gave free reign to his  imaginative imagery and decidedly off-kilter compositions. With an ability to combine surrealism, silliness and all sorts of cosmic imagery, he was well positioned to go it alone with Eye, his fourth solo outing after his on and off efforts with his post-Soft Boys outfit The Egyptians. 

In truth, both those aforementioned bands were content to follow Hitchcock’s  musical whims, so describing any of the albums he recorded in their company either as a group effort or a solo outing is ultimately a moot point. Shaped by Hitchcock’s distinctive eye for incongruity, they were all examples of his penchant for wit and whimsy.

Nevertheless, by the time Eye saw daylight on March 12, 1990, Hitchcock already had a lot to live up to. The three albums that preceded it, I Often Dream of Trains, Globe of Frogs and Queen Elvis, had set a high bar, further establishing him as a decidedly askew English singer/songwriter who took his cues from Dylan, Lennon, Syd Barrett, and other outlandish examples of progressive British pop. Indeed, those earlier efforts spawned some of his most prominent signature songs — “Madonna of the Wasps, “One Long Pair Of Eyes,” “Balloon Man,” “Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl,” and “A Globe of Frogs,” among them.  They hadn’t been hits in the strictest sense — after all, Hitchcock didn’t conform to the typical pop norms —but they had helped etch a signature sound that would have ardent admirers gravitating towards him in the years to come. 

Robyn Hitchcock 1990 (Art: Ron Hart) 

Strangely enough, for all his cosmic meandering and weirdly obtuse intents, Eye was surprisingly sedate. Recorded simply and acoustically, it comes across as an ideal example of Hitchcock’s particular folk noir, songs that are oddly observational and yetflush with melancholy musings, all of it far too weird and whimsical to be taken too seriously. Likewise, with his usual array of obtuse titles — “Queen Elvis,” “Clean Steve,” “Agony of Pleasure” and the like — Hitchcock’s sense of satire tends to once again make for a mirthful encounter. For example, the narrative he spins on opening track “Cynthia Mask” — which begins with Hitchcock recounting the fall of Napoleon and his exile on the island of Elba, name checking other infamous figures that populated the history books before eventually finding its focus on a woman named Cynthia who suspiciously hides her public persona — reinforces the quirkiness and confusion found in the song’s various subplots. 

So it goes throughout, Hitchcock maintaining his charm from the jaunty bounce of “Certainly Clickot” to the lofty lament that becomes “Queen Elvis” and through to the Dylanesque ballad “Linctus Hotel,” the wistful sounds of “Sweet Ghost of Light” and the surprisingly sedate piano instrumentals “Chinese Water Python” and “College of Ice.” Indeed, for all its strange ramifications it remains a consistently enticing set of songs, and another supreme example of Hitchcock donning his usual manic minstrel guise.

“Everybody must get stoned, all together or all alone,” he croons on the aforementioned “Queen Elvis.” While no one wants to advocate ingestion of mind-shifting substances, one would have to admit that in this particular instance, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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