Album of the Week, March 13: Element of Light by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

robyn_hitchcock_the_egyptians-element_of_lightRobyn Hitchcock first made waves with the unique punkedelia of the Soft Boys. When the band dissolved, he went solo, releasing a solid effort, a fascinating mess, and a quiet masterpiece. When he decided to work with a band again, he called on two old friends, Soft Boys Andy Metcalfe (bass, keyboards, guitar) and Morris Windsor (drums). Adding keyboard player Roger Jackson, he introduced Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. The group built on Hitchcock’s solo work, providing an edgy folk-rock sound that polished the energy of the Soft Boys into a perfect setting for the singer/guitarist’s surrealist musings on life. After a solid start with Fegmania and a deliciously powerful live album, the group hit their stride with one of the finest albums in Hitchcock’s long, distinctive career.

Album Element of Light
Act Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
Label Midnight Release Date 1986
Producer Robyn Hitchcock and Andy Metcalfe with Pat Collier
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. If You Were A Priest
  2. Winchester
  3. Somewhere Apart
  4. Ted, Woody and Junior
  5. The President
  6. Raymond Chandler Evening
  7. Bass
  8. Airscape
  9. Never Stop Bleeding
  10. Lady Waters and the Hooded One
  11. The Black Crow Knows
  12. The Crawling
  13. The Leopard
  14. Tell Me About Your Drugs

Element of Light refers to Hitchcock’s experience of the natural beauty on his favorite beach, located on the Isle of Wight, the scene of the photographs on the album sleeve.. That sense of naturalism runs through much of his work and provides the touchstone for this collection. Hitchcock also opens another window into his influences. Where his solo acoustic wonder, I Often Dream of Trains, was partly an ode to Syd Barrett, much of this disc resonates with touches of John Lennon circa Revolver. While clearly his own work, the band leader’s vocals and guitar — as well as his smart reliance on talented bandmates — clearly reference his hero.

Things open with an off-kilter romance that could have come from the Soft Boys’ catalog. If You Were A Priest is a fun romp and a smart way to start the proceedings. Winchester is a lush ode to a stop between London and the Isle of Wight. Lush and textured, it features an elegantly swirling piano, delicate brushwork on the drums, and rich harmonies from Metcalfe and Windsor. Gorgeous and meditative, it forms a key part of the quiet naturalism of the album.

Somewhere Apart is that strangest of beasts, a moment where one might easily say of a Hitchcock song, “That could have been a hit!” Relying heavily on the rhythm section, it’s danceable and charming, subversively featuring typical Hitchcock absurdities among the dance references. Nostalgia gets skewered on Ted, Woody and Junior an ode to the homoeroticism of 50s muscle magazines. The skewer gets sharper on The President, a rare moment of overt political commentary. Hitchcock shreds Ronald Reagan’s visit to the SS cemetery at Bitburg, neatly dissecting the Cowboy President’s disastrous legacy.

With an eerie bass keyboard, Raymond Chandler Evening is pure Hitchcock noir. One of the singer’s finest moments, it captures the spirit of the mystery master in glimpses and dark hints. It also features a line that sums up Hitchcock’s career nicely: “I’d like to reassure you, but I’m not that kind of guy.” Bass is a surrealist bit of naturalism, a twisted catalog of sea creatures and their activities. Think Bosch visits the seaside…

The album’s centerpiece — featuring the title line — is the magnificent Airscape. With a wonderful glass harmonica and lyrical, sympathetic playing, Hitchcock crafts an ode to the splendor of nature. Soaring and sincere, it finds Hitchcock channeling Walt Whitman and Van Morrison through his very personal musical lens. Another standout in his whole catalog, it ensures this disc’s place among the finest of his career.

Never Stop Bleeding is a quiet meditation on suffering, a darker moment of naturalism. It manages to be brooding and sympathetic at once, a powerful combination. The original album ends with the amazing neo-folk ballad Lady Waters and the Hooded One. With nice harmonies, a driving bass line, and searing guitar moments, it could be a Fairport Convention outtake, if not for the distinctly Hitchcock twist to the story. It’s a fine wrap-up to an amazing album.

The initial CD release features four bonus tracks, all of which add something to the mix — something many extras fail to do. The Black Crow Knows is a smart bit on the power of nature, a dark little warning that fits perfectly. The Crawling is a bit of horror movie charm, ominous and mysterious. The Leopard is a slighter moment of naturalism, but a fine song in its own right and a  solid ecological warning. Tell Me About Your Drugs works as a great coda, matching the Soft Boys tones of the opening track with a wink, a nod, and a knowing grimace.

Over the course of 14 tracks, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians provide the listener with a fun, smart, distinctive set of songs. They fuse eccentric psychedelia, folk rock, and smart pop, adding something special that makes Element of Light a standout album and a highlight of a long, fascinating career.

FURTHER LISTENING: I’ve looked at Hitchcock’s solo and Soft Boys catalogs on previous Albums of the Week. He spent a decade recording with the Egyptians, taking a brief break to release a solo acoustic album in 1990. With the burgeoning commercial potential of the college / alternative music scene, A&M signed the Egyptians following Element of Light, releasing their subsequent four albums. In general, all these Egyptians discs feature a few amazing songs with some solid but less inspiring Hitchcockiana.

Fegmania is a solid start. The first two A&M albums — Globe of Frogs and Queen Elvis — are nearly as good, with the second being a bit more consistent. The last two discs — Perspex Island and Respect — suffer from slickness and a too-comfortable-with-themselves feeling. A&M’s Greatest Hits is a fine way to summarize these four discs and also features some great singles, outtakes, and side projects. Gotta Let This Hen Out!, the band’s live album and second release, is one of their best moments and captures their live energy well.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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