Saturday, April 13, 2019

I Often Dream of Trains (1984)

When you hear all about the superiorities of analog versus digital recording, how the sound of analog is warmer, deeper, fuller, best heard on vinyl, I still don't put much credence in it. But somehow I suspect it might help explain Robyn Hitchcock's gem of a Freudian catharsis, a solo album in the Todd Rundgren and Prince sense, meaning that it's mostly just Hitchcock multi-tracking piano, acoustic guitar, and vocals. I'm skeptical about the analog/vinyl theory because, for example, I've been listening to I Often Dream of Trains on CD and other digital formats since the '90s, when my turntable went by the wayside. It always sounds warm, deep, and full. It's an album for winter, late night, a fire, a tab of acid, cocoa. The icy dignity of Hitchcock's piano chording and his high holy vocal harmonies—"Trams of Old London" so beautiful—are punctured by his typically loony word porridge, which is often less charming goofball free association and more slightly distressing vomitus from the unconscious. But wait, it's a joke, right? The uncertainty makes it work. Take "Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus," an impressive gospel-grounded number that works the same anti-irony approach musically as the Velvet Underground's "Jesus," posing on the one hand as a plaintive cry to God's mercy for your future hymnal consideration. But there's something off about the words: "Dyin' of starvation in the gutter ... / Or alcoholic poisoning, in the toilet of my choice ... / Fried to death in seconds by the Russians." Eventually it works up to: "If you believe in nothing, honey, it believes in you." This rage is not exactly the anti-irony approach to gospel of the Velvets.

Another thematic element is the sound of early-'70s John Lennon ("Flavour of Night" all but a Plastic Ono Band outtake) and it can also feel like Al Stewart's id on the loose. Hitchcock's weird words must be taken as surreal. I think there's a good deal of humor to them as well but the point where they turn from jokes into something more serious, those things out of the unconscious that surrealists are forever exploring, the lines are gray and blurred. Consider "Uncorrected Personality Traits," the terrible earworm and song you are likely doomed to live with inside your head for the rest of your life, along with the 1-877-Kars4Kids radio ad. It's just Hitchcock's voice, the insanely catchy nursery rhyme melody, and Freud truisms: "Lack of involvement with the father, or over-involvement with the mother / Can result in lack of ability to relate to sexual fears, and in homosexual / ... If you give in to them / Every time they cry / They will become little tyrants / But they won't remember why / ... The spoiled baby grows into / The escapist teenager who's / The adult alcoholic who's / The middle-aged suicide (oy)." And all together one more time: "Uncorrected personality traits that seem whimsical in a child may prove to / Be ugly in a fully grown adult." I love this song and hate it and grudgingly respect it and think it's brilliant all at the same time. Some of Hitchcock's riffs on sexuality, notably transsexuals ("even Marilyn Monroe was a man"), feel at least a little problematic now, if presciently open. This also applies to "Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl" (why the wish? "so I could ROOT myself in the shower," though the lyric sheet says "wreck" rather than "root" ... actually I don't know what it means either way but calling attention to pretty girls in the shower for no particular reason is I guess what's worrying me). There was always a sense with Hitchcock then, which I am still willing to extend to him now, that he's more like another daffy rolling wordsmith in debt to Bob Dylan and essentially harmless. But these songs don't always feel harmless, and that's one of the album's enduring strong points.

1 comment:

  1. After the Soft Boys this was the Hitchcock record I listened to the most.