Listen to this track by neo-psychedelic musical vector and now Nashville-based singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. It’s “I Want To Tell You About What I Want”, the crunchy, lysergically-oriented lead single off of his latest record, the imaginatively titled Robyn Hitchcock.
The record mines the songwriter’s continuing love for mid-sixties psych and absurdist imagery. He’s backed by a full-band that’s very plugged in, emphasizing the pop-jangle and fizz that characterizes a lot of Hitchcock’s mid-to-late-eighties and early nineties material. This is in part down to the sympathetic ear of producer Brendan Benson, a jangly pop musician in his own right. Helping to fill out the profile on other tracks is singer-songwriter Grant Lee Phillips, and pedal steel player Russ Pahl, who add some unexpectedly essential textures to bring everything into focus, and with extra 1966-67 psychedelic contours.
With all of that in place, the record sounds and feels like Hitchcock is perfectly at home, and yet still manages to avoid complacency. Maybe this is because there are many places on the record that sound very personal in a way that Hitchcock’s music has never really been before, taking those absurdities in which he usually deals into a very palpable social arena.
This song is just what you think it is, which is an assumption that isn’t wisely made on most Hitchcock songs. He really is trying to tell us what he wants. It gives away more of the songwriter than some may expect, an approach found on a number of tracks. Maybe that’s why the eponymous title is so well-chosen; this is where the songwriter is at this point in his life, as close to Robyn Hitchcock the person as we’ve ever come musically or lyrically.
Having said that, this is no confessional or autobiographical tune in any conventional sense. It is about what the songwriter wants as the title promises. But it is very pointedly not about him. It’s about a vision for the world in which beings, either an advanced version of humanity or an evolved cat species (hey, this is a still a Robyn Hitchcock tune …), have adapted to feel “what it’s like to be somebody else”. Writing into NPR, Hitchcock says:
“The original title of the song was ‘My Vision Of World Empathy.’ Either we will eventually become extinct and be replaced by cats with articulated thumbs who have evolved the way apes slowly evolved into us, or we will become empathic and mildly telepathic — people like Donald Trump won’t happen because biologically no human will be born with that lack of empathy. We will become a species that isn’t capable of bullying because we can feel what we’re doing to other people…”[Read the whole article]
Of all the mutant abilities to have, built in telepathy and empathy about what another person experiences and senses is a pretty good one. It’s certainly needed in 2017, the year that GOP representatives decided to steal money from the poor and the sick in order to give themselves and their leash-holding private backers an even bigger piece of the pie. We could use a bit of evolution to kick in right about now.
As much as he is associated with a sense of the absurd that’s often coloured by pessimism, this song is about where humanity should go according to the songwriter; a world where everyone has empathy as a built-in superpower, eradicating greed and the callousness that that greed engenders. Sign me up! Among many other benefits, something like that would entirely eliminate the impulse to play god with people’s lives for the sake of misshapen, obscene self-interest as expressed through malignant political agendas that attack everyone who doesn’t fit an arbitrary racial, cultural, class, or even gender profile.
After a few listens, what this song ends up doing is planting a seed in the mind of the listener and one that’s certainly viable in our current geopolitical climate. That seed germinates into thoughts about what’s really the most absurd; a world where evolved cats with articulated thumbs can feel what being another person is like, or one where a barely-elected manchild and the hawkish opportunistic cretins that coddle him want to push through legislation for the bald-faced sake of being seen as successful at the act of pushing it through without any regard or care for its content or consequences. I know the one I’m voting for.
I’m not sure that Hitchcock intended for this song to be a protest song, or overtly political in any conventional sense. I suspect not. Following convention has never really been a part of his approach. But I am reminded that absurdism has always been political at its root. In this, my personal policy stands; never trust anyone who can’t find the absurdities in things. Missing that level of meaning or holding it in scorn can destroy the world.
That’s another thing this song hits on. For those who strive to be more compassionate, and to stretch for a greater understanding of the realities faced by other people of differing experiences even at the cost of one’s own comfort, a vision is required. We need to tell others about what we want, and listen to others as they do the same. That’s never been so damn important as it is right now.
Robyn Hitchcock is an active musician and songwriter that you can learn more about at robynhitchcock.com.