MIXED EMOTIONS “You know what they say. ‘Life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.’ I guess I want both.”
At some point or another, the greatest artists are pegged as oddballs, weirdos, freaks. Being a great artist does mean going out on a limb. Over time, and often without knowing it, an artist will create something greater than just himself — an understanding of the world made from the bric-a-brac of his mind combined with the collective energies of both his supporters and his detractors. UK post-punk legend Robyn Hitchcock (who comes to the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Tuesday) has done all that — and in more than three decades of continuous experimentation, he’s fashioned a new reality for those who fall under the intricate spell of his beguiling music.
“Of course, it depends how you define reality,” says Hitchcock, on the phone from his office in London. The slightest mention of the fractured world within his songs sets him off on a fascinating flight of fancy. “I mean, reality is the ultimate collection of improbabilities, sat on a chair opposite you, you know? Reality is shaking hands with the impossible, which is what we do every day. Reality is a membrane of the banal spread over the inconceivable: we think that we are getting up every morning and going to work, or we follow these patterns of how we live — when all the while, this extraordinary mechanism is lurching and buckling beneath our feet. We all live on the edge of an apocalypse, because we all die, you know? People tend to have this rather tame concept of what reality is.”
Since the late ’70s, first with his punk-era group the Soft Boys, and then later during his ongoing solo career, Hitchcock has been chipping away at that tame concept. His songs operate as psychic Trojan horses, as lyrical mind bombs packaged in sweet and lilting pop bonbons, exploding in your mind after they slip slyly through your ear membranes. Whether indulging his early lyrical obsession with insects and fishes or his later bent for disturbing verbal ruminations on death, Armageddon, and political buffoonery, Hitchcock has always snuck his own singular surrealism into his gorgeous tuneage.
That tuneage has taken many forms, from the prickly new wave of his ’80s trio the Egyptians to the more lush vegetation on which his songs tread softly when he plays with the Venus 3 (R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey and Ministry/Revolting Cocks drummer Bill Rieflin), as he does on his newest long-player, this spring’s playful and breezy Propellor Time (Sartorial). Recorded at various sessions over the past four years with a cast of guests who include John Paul Jones, Johnny Marr, and Nick Lowe, the album finds Hitchcock toning down the direct creepiness of some of his older work, with cascading arrangements guiding his slyly hypnotizing vocals to melodic nirvanas. But no matter what form his music takes, even when minimized to just a man and his acoustic guitar (as will be the case when he graces the Coolidge stage), his mastery of surreal states always finds a way to bob to the surface.