Lovesongs For The Strange At Heart

R.E.M.'s Peter Buck guests.

Robyn Hitchcock shows no signs of slowing down or shifting gears, but he

does seem to be growing up. The eccentric Englishman has been revitalized by

Rhino Records' re-release of his back catalogue in 1995; since then, he's

released his best work in more than a decade. The new Jewels for

Sophia continues this trend: to find a Hitchcock album this consistently

hook-laden and satisfying, you'd need to go back to Fegmania!,

one of the top 20 albums of the '80s.

But while Fegmania! was filled with surrealist wordplay, sexual

ambiguities and emotional ambivalence, Jewels seems to be filled with

paeans to Hitchcock's personal relationship with Michele Noach, who in

recent years has also served as Hitchcock's unofficial archivist. (Hitchcock

says there will be a whole new version of Jewels available in the

fall.) Once upon a time, the songwriter sang about the terrors of making

breakfast for his dead wife. Now, with the shimmering gentle syncopation of

"I Feel Beautiful," he builds a composition around this decidedly grounded

foundation: "I feel beautiful/ Because you love me." While "You've Got a

Sweet Mouth On You, Baby" does have its Syd Barrett flashbacks -- "I've

embraced you in my coffin/ And I haven't seen you since," for instance --

for the most part, it is another celebration of the enduring power of love.

Indeed, Hitchcock hits closest to home when he deals with issues close to

the heart rather than the fantasies flung from the head: "I Don't Remember

Guildford" (RealAudio excerpt), a heart-wrenching song about the resentment that comes with

growing apart (the song was initially recorded for last year's live

Storefront Hitchcock), is fleshed out with a full band and is one of

the most satisfying songs on the album.

As Hitchcock's grown older, he's become less enamored with wit for wit's

sake. While there are the usual semantic shenanigans -- "The Cheese Alarm" (RealAudio excerpt),

a tabla-fueled affair, is built mainly around a Monty Pythonesque listing of

various dairy delights -- a good half of these songs are about as

straightforward as one could expect from a man whose most enduring song

describes "The Man With the Lightbulb Head."

On Jewels, Hitchcock also produces the strongest pop record since his

glory days with the Egyptians. "Viva! Sea-Tac" is a charging

celebration of the greater Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area ("They've got

the best computers and coffee and smack"), and "NASA Clapping" is a

harmonica-led romp. For the effort, Hitchcock brings together a wonderful

array of musicians: R.E.M.'s Peter Buck plays guitar on three tunes, Grant

Lee Phillips (formerly Buffalo) sings backup on a couple of numbers, and

Hitchcock reunites with his one-time Soft Boys partner Kimberley Rew for the

first time in 17 years.

Longtime Hitchcock aficionados should not fear: Hitchcock shows no signs of

relegating his through-the-looking-glass past to the dustbin of pop history.

The album's title track, led by Buck's iconic, chiming lead notes, starts

off with "I've got a flashlight in my pocket and it goes right through the

socket/ Of a dead man's strum my thumbs so numb" and takes off from there ("Jewels For Sophia" [RealAudio excerpt]).

It would be naive to think Jewels for Sophia will gain the

audience it deserves: nothing else the man has done ever has. But that seems

fine just now. Hitchcock has a record contract, is happy in love and is

making some of the best music of his career.