The Soft Boys: This Was Us

Underwater Moonlight offers the mentally unbalanced view of love

The Soft Boys (Art: Ron Hart)

Influenced by the intake of hallucinogenic substances in the sixties, psychedelic music typically explores music that’s warped or tangled in trails developing an oft woolly unbridled sound that ostensibly mirrors the wild, unplanned rush and obsessively intriguing minutiae of the drug. The Soft Boys turn this on its head a bit. 

Part of what makes Underwater Moonlight so intoxicating is singer / songwriter Robyn Hitchcock’s ability to create rich acid-stained lyrical dreamscapes to spy the twisted side of love. (Hitchcock has described his lyricism as “dreaming in public.”) There’s heavy traffic in symbols (“You’re laying eggs under my skin, now they’re hatching out beneath my chin” he sings on “Kingdom of Love”), distancing the listener from the story aspect that they might more readily focus on the skewed, misbegotten perspectives of its characters. This is the type of album that Steve Buscemi would be attached to.

If moonlight is traditionally associated with lovers, then Hitchcock wants to take us to the underworld, where this pure light is bent, and all types of twisted creatures emerge. It’s an album populated by old perverts, bored statues, the wildly possessive and omniscient stalkers indistinct from the feeling of paranoia. One half expects a walk-on by Gollum relating his passion for his precious.

Unlike, say, Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, there was no consumption during the recording of the songs. While they were certainly experienced, it wasn’t their scene. “I took a few trips, but I didn’t trust it,” Hitchcock told Jim DeRogatis in his book Turn On Your Mind. “You certainly don’t need to take drugs to make creative music.”

The Soft Boys Underwater Moonlight, Two Crabs 1980

The songs are merely the result of a bitter mood and general relational malaise that Hitchcock with the help of his inventive mates whip into one of the most distinctive discs of the decade. 

“I just remember listening to Moonlight over the years and thinking, well that’s a nice boppy record,” Hitchcock told the Harvard Crimson in 2001 when the album was reissued on Matador with a second disc of bonus tracks. “I think I was feeling pretty dark, and what they did was take the darkness and didn’t make it so oppressive. That’s the best word for it, really. They kind of put some light into it, they put some bubbles, some oxygen into it and translated what was quite a grim state of mind and made it into something that was quite fun, in a way, without being silly.”

The claustrophobic emotions and spectral imagery deposits you in romantic Sleepy Hollow long after dark, teasing with an offer of great release that could just as easily go south and leave you emotionally handicapped (er, differently-abled) like one of these sad creatures. Love: It sells diapers.

The album kicks off with a figurative bang in the form of “I Want to Destroy” you, maybe the finest anti-war song written in the last 50 years simply by taking Jonathan Swift’s route. Hitchcock’s “modest proposal” is a satirical broadside on institutionalized xenophobia as a political weapon and about as withering as possible, though it also functions as a cudgel toward hate in general. 

Hitchcock starts by noting the empty jingoism, and how it’s used to distract the public (“they feed your pride with boredom and they lead you on to war”) then bemoans the pointless of it all: “If you want to fight, then you’re just dying to get killed.” In other words, if the only purpose of the exercise is to get into a fight, the wanton belligerence makes the deaths meaningless. It’s Ivan Drago all over: “If he dies, he dies.”

The second verse almost feels scripted for Rupert Murdoch and the modern media age of one-sided reporting, disinformation and endless self-promotion: “They tell you your opinions, and they’re very good indeed!” It concludes with an obsessive rejoinder that takes the urge to eradicate to its logical (genocidal) conclusion: “When I have destroyed you, I’ll come picking at your bones and you won’t have a single atom left to call your own!”

Hitchcock’s plaintive wailing “I” in the chorus is suitably unhinged for the song, while the guitars clang and bang in a ringing cacophony like the Stranglers by way of Wire. Beneath it all is bassist Matthew Seligman whose propulsive bottom-end is the eye of the storm and never seems to get enough credit when this album’s discussed. He’s a literal heartbeat of nearly every tune, particularly “I Got the Hots” and the next one, “Kingdom of Love.”

Seligman’s groovy walking bass is the foundation of a rambling discourse on the nature of love from it’s procreational imperative (“all the tiny insects look like you”) to the relational (“In the primitive jungle of love, it’s funny what you’re capable of… if looks could kill then baby I’d be dead” and “you grow out of me just like a plant”) to the fact that we’re just some protozoa that grew some ambition (“in the physical kingdom of time… your dish is full of slime”). 

 

VIDEO: The Soft Boys perform “Kingdom of Love” 2001

“Kingdom of Love” closes with an idea of possession/obsession that Hitchcock will build upon across the album, which seems to question the merging process. I mean what if you merge with some bad meat? What can you do when they’ve “confiscated all my dreams”? I’m thinking you’re a little stuck. The song’s mostly Seligman’s show with the guitars a rhythm device sprinkled with impressionistic scabrous spasms to underscore the anxiety underwriting the sentiments, though it closes with more traditionally psychedelic ringing guitar lines.

“Positive Vibrations” employs what sound like the kind of Eastern modalities you’d expect from Ravi Shankar in service to a chiming aspirational psychedelic tune that Hithcock said was written sort of fake-it-til-you-make it. “I wanted to invert the way I was feeling. The Russians had invaded Afghanistan, my girlfriend took the dog to be put down. I thought, okay, let’s turn this upside down. I flipped myself over,” Hitchcock writes in the reissue’s liner notes.

Of course the lyrics are hardly sanguine. “Don’t you know you’ll never get peace anymore? Just get war.” There’s also the oddity of Hitchcock employing a paranoia/destroy-ya rhyme at the same time Ray Davies was recording “Destroyer” (with same rhyme) for the Kinks, arriving a year later. If you wonder if the song worked for Robyn, just check out the final line: “I feel like oil that burns in the sea. It gets hot, never stops.”

This leads to the albums triptych song “cycle” of obsession. Arguably the entire album is about obsessions, but these are its hot burning heart. I believe it’s important that there are two competing songs within “I Got the Hots,” a slow, repeating blues vamp, and a shimmery psychedelic oasis. 

The former scores a series of striking pairings none of which seems particularly propitious: Dentures are no match for a peach, the spike is disastrous to the integrity of a tomato (besides its phallic reverberations) and the bleach will wipe out the tide of filth tout suite. (Admittedly, I’ve yet to decipher the curry/corpse connection, though India is replete with stories of cannibalism going hand-in-glove with curry.) 

The other “song within the song” offers the type of Panglossian account of love we more typically hear, an odd contrapositive w/r/t love. Also a strange plethora of pastry metaphors. “Looking out on a crystal world… Baking land under creamy skies… When you see her your eyes will wake / Electric bulbs on a birthday cake.” Like wedding guests, he asks if we’ll have the steak or the fish, apparently cut into appropriately sized “lumps,” as Hitchock has his odd way with synonyms. 

The music itself seems to seesaw, particularly upon closing as guitarist Kimberly Rew walks a spiky guitar line back-and-forth like a convalescing patient, drone growing distant than closer, suggestive of Television’s simmering hum, wavering between extremes as it fades away.

The Soft Boys press photo 1980 (Photo: Curtis Knapp)

What follows is arguably their signature song, “Insanely Jealous.” Already the album has made fine use of dynamics, but this is the coup de grace, a song of accelerating intensity as if a growing illness that has started to seize the singer. It starts with just a trill, like a buzzing telephone wire, growing louder. It recalls both Lennon and Costello’s “I Want You,’ in delving to the extreme of obsession by spiraling down the hole. Somehow Hitchcock reverses this sending the narrator skyward like a rocket looking for a place to explode.

This is a pursuit narrative, the closest thing to a narrative up to now, though it’s still driven by dream logic: “I wander past your window and I catch a cigarette thrown from a jewel encrusted hand, It comes on pretty quick exactly like a crocodile in search of a mirage across the undulating sand.” Don’t ask me what a crocodile is doing in a desert, but I’m thinking he’s thirsty. Insanely thirsty.

Suffice to say, Robyn’s feelings of romance are a little lacking, though it’s hard to argue with “if they can’t be rabbits, they’ll be friends,” as someone that’s spent significant time in the friend zone. But unlike the Costello or Lennon versions which slowly dehumanize their narrator, a peculiarly ingratiating aspect of “Insanely Jealous” is that the narrator’s obviously bedeviled. “I just can’t let it out. This feeling of insanity is thicker than a barge upon a shattered heap of coal,” he cries, invoking an oddly drydocked ship that’s clearly doing nowhere.

As the song closes the pace picks up and the guitars swirl overhead like vultures or winged Furies picking at what’s left of his humanity… until there is nothing left but the barest ritual divorced of meaning. He conveys this feeling with an incredible image reminiscent of Ozymandias’ statue: “The paint is cracked and dry the name is now illegible, everything is lost upon the cracked and misted hull… lovers trip beside a ship but all I hear when they embrace is just the kiss of skulls.” 

He is truly lost, and that’s when he loses it, confessing to wanting to possess everything, jealous “of the spiders in your path,” to the point where he just admits he’s insane—- ly jealous of you. For a guy whose odd symbolism can make his songs seem sort of intellectual and distant, this song is in your face enough to scissor kick your tonsils. As terrific as he is, Hitchcock has yet to write anything this visceral

 

AUDIO: The Soft Boys “Insanely Jealous”

By comparison, “Tonight” can only seem sort of mild, and indeed its narrator is sort of insubstantial to boot. Then again, he’s pretty much omniscient and omnipresent (“I am here and everywhere tonight”), so there’s that. The most instructive line is at the end of the chorus: “If nothing goes wrong it’s all right.” I’m reminded of Costello’s line from “Watching the Detectives” about the parents who are “ready to hear the worst about their daughter’s disappearance.” 

The narrator is clearly here for the mischief, indeed, I read it as the underlying anxiety, paranoia and distrust that in the intervening four decades has come to color every moment of our life. The best invocation of this feeling is the line, “When you turn the key to your door, someone’s been inside there before, it was me but you don’t know what for.” Can you say, “Creepy”? We knew you could.

What I love best is that Hitchcock doesn’t limit it to human predators: “In the back of a broken down car, on the rim of a vacuum jar.” He’s coming to get you tonight, and you have no idea what form he’ll take. Some seriously the-call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house music.

It’s hard not to spend more time with the other three tracks, which only suffer for falling from the curve of the album’s very high scale. 

“Queen of Eyes” is essentially an endlessly catchy throwaway psychedelic pop ditty. Even in this two-minute milieu, Hitchcock finds a way to be distinct, both in his description (“carapace [turtle] shell and black lace thighs”) and the third person perspective: “I don’t know why she never gets anywhere with you.” Honestly, how many songs can you name where the chorus is an observer commenting to the second person about the first person who is the subject of the song?

 

Besides the fact there aren’t enough songs about (seemingly harmless) “Old Perverts,” the song is a delight for the scruffiest, gnarliest atonal guitar this side of Hella, and a shambling rhythm that makes you feel like you’re following Aqualung to his lair while he tells you about his life. Personally was surprised this song didn’t see more light when Trump was talking about injecting bleach because he sings, “disinfectant is the only thing I drink,” and makes a convincing case: “Cleanliness of the soul is important, don’t you think?”

Finally there’s the titular track which trills beneath some of the album’s prettiest music as it tells a strangely familiar folktale about statues that leave their pedestals at night for some must needed action, get themselves stuck at sea, until a couple comes along, fails to appreciate a very large slow moving squid which kills them, allowing the statues an opportunity to row back to shore and replace them. 

 

AUDIO: The Soft Boys Live at the Portland Arms

Listen, if you’ve heard one story about humans being replaced by statues you’ve heard them all. It’s handled with a romantic flair, and the guitar break is truly delicious, it’s the only song that’s more interesting musically than the lyrical material, and it isn’t for lack of trying.

While they were at the forefront of an incipient psychedelic movement, they were just too truly weird to be more widely appreciated in the immediate shortness of time. It’s the type of album you have to surrender to maybe, to truly steep in its brilliance, and not everyone is willing to give away that much control. 

Indeed, it almost seems like this was the point – that Underwater Moonlight was something of a virus, something you couldn’t just decide upon. While long feted underground, the fact the band broke up shortly thereafter sort of cemented its cult-status. (Scarcity is king.) Hitchcock’s inimitable subsequent catalog has cast him as one always looking for odd entries or perspectives on the familiar, be it choosing between your real wife and phantasm ex- or detailing an encounter with a balloon guy, where “it rained like a slow divorce.”

 

 

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