“Just another singer-songwriter laying their freshest eggs” is how Robyn Hitchcock — and probably only Robyn Hitchcock — describes the business-as-usual approach to record making that he desperately wanted to avoid on his new album, The Man Upstairs. Luckily, producer Joe Boyd had a suggestion. Why not split the difference between a carton of homegrown eggs and the tired, full-blown covers album. Hitchcock’s twist on that idea offers a mostly delightful mix of reworked standards, obscure covers, and originals, which, in some cases, have been incubating for decades.
The best performances here — be they covers or resuscitated originals — fit Hitchcock like one of his patented, polka-dotted button-downs. He may join the legions who have revamped the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You”, but it could just as easily bear Hitchcock’s copyright. After all, it’s a relatively short stroll from “Inside you the time moves/ And she don’t fade” to “But I smell her perfume when my eyes are closed/ And I see her face in the moon” (from Hitchcock’s “She Doesn’t Exist Anymore”). The glistening, hushed “San Francisco Patrol”, one of the year’s loveliest songs, adopts the cop lingo of Clint Eastwood’s classic Magnum Force to relate the “beat” we all walk: “Who are we staking out?/ What is this life about?/ Watching out for someone, but you don’t know who/ I can’t take my eyes off you.”
All 10 acoustic tracks are stripped nearly as bare as the skeletal man upstairs on the album’s cover, the occasional piano, cello, or vocal harmonies (the latter from I Was a King’s Anne Lise Frøkedal) adding delicate morsels of flesh to Hitchcock’s bare-bones plucking and strumming. It’s the type of subdued affair that could grow painfully tedious in the hands of a less expressive artist. Maybe that’s why Hitchcock bookended the crawling, whispered “Don’t Look Down” (Grant-Lee Phillips) with the album’s liveliest tracks: the playful, harmonica-squawking “Somebody to Break Your Heart” and I Was a King’s jangly folk number, “Ferries”.
More so than sound sequencing decisions, it’s Hitchcock’s flair as a performer that carries The Man Upstairs from start to finish. On Roxy Music’s “To Turn You On”, he doesn’t let a syllable go to waste, dropping from his nasally cockney to a guttural baritone before sinking into whispers and allowing his breath to run out mid-word — all on the same line. By no means is this a fresh egg, but you’re in good hands when Hitchcock’s picking ‘em.
Essential Tracks: “San Francisco Patrol”, “The Ghost in You”, and “Ferries”