"The title refers to two long nights spent in Oslo in 1982 by Morris Windsor and myself with some friends," Robyn Hitchcock says of Goodnight Oslo, his new Proper Records release with his ace combo the Venus 3. "The album, in part, celebrates the ghosts of the smoke age, and the various ways they were wrecked but still sailed on. That's the way it is with humans. You could call it the comfort of doom. Goodnight Oslo is a vortex that I am still leaving."
The ten new Hitchcock compositions that comprise Goodnight Oslo mark another milestone in the Englishman's iconoclastic catalog. His remarkable body of recordings spans more than three decades, beginning with his seminal late-'70s work with post-punk psychedelicists the Soft Boys and continuing with a series of highly regarded albums under his own name and with his backup outfit the Egyptians and, more recently, the Venus 3. Those releases have won Hitchcock an international reputation as a visionary lyricist with an uncanny penchant for incisive whimsy and vivid surrealist metaphor, as well as a world-class tunesmith with a deep affinity for Beatlesque/Byrdsy songcraft.
The qualities that distinguished Hitchcock's prior work are prominent on such Goodnight Oslo tunes as "What You Is", "I'm Falling," "Hurry For The Sky" and "Up To Our Nex," which carry a hopeful, healing and unmistakably playful vibe that reflects the ongoing evolution in Hitchcock's lyrical perspective.
"These songs are largely about breaking out of a negative cycle, and believing that change can happen," the artist asserts, adding, "It's not a recovery album or a therapy album per se; it's just a sign to the exit. Of course, it's sad to say goodbye to what you know and what you've been, but nothing is solid."
Goodnight Oslo is Hitchcock's second full-length effort with the Venus 3, an all-American ensemble of notable alt-rockers, namely R.E.M.'s Peter Buck (who's worked sporadically with Hitchcock for more than 20 years) on guitar, Minus 5/Young Fresh Fellows/R.E.M'er Scott McCaughey on bass and Ministry/R.E.M. vet Bill Rieflin on drums. The foursome's effortless rapport was previously showcased on Hitchcock's 2006 album Ole! Tarantula and the 2007 live EP Sex, Food, Death... and Tarantulas.
"The boys are all happy to take risks, but they build a steady bridge over every ravine," Hitchcock says of the Venus 3. "Peter can go anywhere I go, and then explain to me how we get out again. Scott is super-warm and the heart of us. Bill is precise, works with a clear mind, dices the beat like a sushi chef and puts in amazing rolls too. Like Davy Jones and Graham Nash, I'm the Englishman of the group."
In addition to the Venus 3, Goodnight Oslo - recorded at Tucson's Wavelab studio, at Chroma studio in Seattle and at Hitchcock's London home, with additional overdubs added in New York, the North West and Cardiff - features contributions from Decemberists singer Colin Meloy, Harvey Danger frontman Sean Nelson and Hitchcock's former Soft Boys bandmate Morris Windsor.
As the new album confirms, Hitchcock is presently in the midst of a remarkable artistic and career resurgence. At a point at which many veteran artists are either throwing in the towel or coasting on past achievements, Hitchcock has been generating some of the most vibrant and resonant music he's ever made. He's also performing for ever larger and more diverse audiences, particularly in the U.S., where he's long maintained a rabidly devoted fan base.
"You never know when the clock will stop," Hitchcock reflects. "I will probably never time-travel, heal the sick or levitate, which were the natural ambitions I had as a boy. But I have trained myself to write songs and perform them, and I'm still developing those abilities. I am past my peak as an animal, but not as an artist. Of course, your work doesn't necessarily improve with age; it just mutates. You have to give birth to those mutations, I guess. So my songs may be no better now than 30 years ago; they're merely alive in a different way, fed on different emotional nutrients, as I am."
Recent months have also seen Hitchcock engaging in a broad array of multimedia excursions and creative collaborations. He's the subject of a pair of films directed by John Edginton for the Sundance Channel: the documentary profile Sex, Food, Death... and Insects, and a concert film documenting the New York stop on the November 2008 tour on which Hitchcock presented his classic 1984 album I Often Dream of Trains in its entirety. He also performs two songs in Jonathan Demme's current film hit Rachel Getting Married; longtime Hitchcock fan Demme had previously directed the artist in the unconventional concert film Storefront Hitchcock and the political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, in which Hitchcock played a villainous supporting role. Hitchcock has also been writing songs with XTC's Andy Partridge.
Hitchcock - along with such artists as K.T. Tunstall, Jarvis Cocker, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Martha Wainwright, Vanessa Carlton and Feist - recently participated in the latest Cape Farewell expedition, an ambitious environmental-awareness project that sent a group of musicians, artists, writers and scientists on a sea voyage to the Arctic to experience the effects of global climate change firsthand, in an effort to focus attention on the gravest environmental issue of our time.
"We sailed on a Russian icebreaker around the west coast of Greenland, watching the luminescent icebergs that the melting glaciers shed, floating away from the great ice fields," Hitchcock recounts. "By the time of the next U.S. election, there will be no ice or snow to stand on at the North Pole in summer, just a body of water with the Russians, Canadians and Norwegians all drilling for oil beneath it. What are we going to do about it? Cross-pollinate ideas amongst ourselves. Cape Farewellers are everywhere now. Creative propaganda, or an elegy for what we are destroying? Hopefully both. I had a couple of great jams up there with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Jarvis Cocker, and K.T. Tunstall and I recorded some new songs written on the boat. Spaciba, Alina!"
Hitchcock's current career renaissance coincides with a series of retrospective releases that have restored the bulk of his catalog to the marketplace. Yep Roc has issued a pair of lovingly assembled box sets, I Wanna Go Backwards and Luminous Groove, which cover much of Hitchcock's '80s output, as well as expanded individual reissues of most of his albums of that era. Plans are also afoot for the release of the Soft Boys' collected works in box set form.
"It's always a happy sight to see your work in print," Hitchcock notes. "Those records weren't really made for their time, so it's like the letter we posted 30 years ago is just being delivered now."
But reliving his history takes a back seat to the fertile stream of new music that Hitchcock continues to generate, and Goodnight Oslo demonstrates that the artist's singular vision remains as compelling as ever, even as he continues to forge ahead into stimulating new territory.
"I've lived past the age of malice, though I still dwell in the valley of rage," Hitchcock states. "That's why my compass still points to John Lennon. He was angry and emotionally uncomfortable, but he was funny and smart. I hope that my core can radiate through my own fear and doubt."
Upcoming Tour Dates
No European shows booked at the moment.