“Element of Light” by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians (No. 7)
Posted On 4 October 2016
If Robyn Hitchcock hadn’t gone into music, perhaps he’d have become a novelist like his father. His penchant for storytelling shows through heavily in Element of Light.
Hitchcock has a pretty solid catalog of music as a solo artist, with his backing bands The Egyptians and The Venus 3, and (of course) with The Soft Boys. It took a lot of mulling before I decided on the ones that would make the top 100, and two things put Element of Light at the top of the stack – the music (obviously) and the stories.
Musically, Element of Light features some of my favorite Hitchcock compositions (and that’s saying quite a lot). But Element clearly features some of the most developed stories in his songs.
By the way, for the purpose of this post I’m considering Element pressings that have the original 10 tracks, and the four “bonus” tracks that appeared on the re-release CDs. Some later releases have a slew of additional tracks, but I’m not considering those.
“If You Were a Priest” kicks off the album. It’s a solid pop/rock number, with some great guitar jamming by Hitchcock.
“Winchester” is like a short story that leaves a lot of gaps to fill in, but it’s definitely a narrative. The bass by Andy Metcalfe is somewhere between John Entwistle and Paul McCartney. It’s got that solid treble element that helps it stand out, and it’s really carrying the melody throughout. Like many Hitchcock tunes, there’s more than a little menace in the lyrics.
Speaking of Beatlesque influences, I hear a lot of John Lennon in “Somewhere Apart,” though I don’t think that Lennon ever referenced “see-through things crawling through the sea.” Maybe he did, he was the walrus. But this sounds quite a lot like solo Lennon work here. (I’m still rooting for Hitchcock to do an album of Lennon covers, as he already has with Bob Dylan.)
“Ted, Woody and Junior” is a little romantic vignette about a three-way. “The President” is a little story inspired by Reagan’s visit to Bitburg. You can feel the cold war era influence here, For a long time, I heard this as “Ted, Woody and Julia” – looks like Hitchcock was even more progressive than I’d have thought in 1986.
Raymond Chandler Evening
If there was a hint of menace in “Winchester,” there’s full-on menace in “Raymond Chandler Evening.” Among my favorite lyrics from Hitchcock, “I’d love to reassure you, but I’m not that kind of guy.”
Have I mentioned Metcalfe’s bass playing? It’s on serious display on “Bass,” which is a song about… fish. Little play on words there. Another example of Hitchcock’s famous obsession with the organic and nature.
“Airscape” is just fucking amazing. It begins with backward-sounding guitar, and has glass armonica adding an ethereal and haunting sound. Hitchcock’s vocals on this one are sweet and smooth. And, yeah, Metcalfe’s bass contribution is just perfect.
The final track on the original album is “Lady Waters and the Hooded One,” in which Death is outsmarted by the song’s protagonist:
“You must take from me all I have,” she said
“You must take it all with good grace:
For I have the plague on my body
And I have the plague on my face.”
Oh the Hooded One took her house and lands
He took every fork, every knife
And he took the plague and he left her there
Without anything but her life
The bonus tracks are all worthy inclusions, particularly “Tell Me About Your Drugs,” which is just a bludgeoning rocker that is fantastic live. Check out this version with Hitchcock and The Smiths’ Johnny Marr:
Hitchcock has made a lot of great music since Element, (and Queen Elvis) and I’m sure he’ll continue to do so. But there’s something particularly magical about this album, everything seems to have come together just perfectly.