Friday, April 5, 2019

Buried Perfection: Unearthing Robyn Hitchcock's 'Element Of Light'!

"So, what's this one sound like?" I asked the record store clerk, sliding the store's lone copy of Groovy Decay across the counter, hoping he'd play a few cuts on the official in-store stereo system.

Instead, he flipped the album over, browsed the song titles for a few seconds, and issued his official statement:

"Dark but harmless."

Say what you will about Brad, the chronically dour assistant manager of Varsity Park Mall's "Record Carousel", but he could nail the essence of any artist in three words.

Being that this was 1982, there was a FUCK-TON of exciting new music coming at us from all directions. To afford it all, this teenage fart prodigy would have needed to be pulling down some Doogie Howser-sized dollars so, yeah, "dark, but harmless" was not in the budget.

For the next four years, Mr. Dark But Harmless flailed like a marionette in a wind tunnel, releasing albums that were more ambitious than inspired. The reviews were polite, pointing out Hitchcock's obvious talents and influences, but one couldn't help ask themselves, "Where was this going?"

To complicate matters, 1984's sparsely acoustic I Often Dream Of Trains seemed like a slow jog through the park at a time when he needed an album that went for the jugular. To our ears, it sounded like a cry for help right before someone disappears, but, in hindsight, Hitchcock just happened to beat Jules Shear and MTV in coming up with the "unplugged" concept that was annoyingly ever-present during the last half of the '80s.

Who in their right mind could have predicted that, by 1986, Hitchcock and his still relatively new band (The Egyptians) would trade the moody aloofness of Fegmania! for melody and their most focused, straight-forward approach, and deliver the deepest, richest, creamiest album of his/their career, Element Of Light.

To put this in proper perspective, Leave it to Hitchcock to cut one of the most timeless and musically rewarding albums of the decade while everybody else was making their most cringe-worthy albums, slathered in icy synths, robotic drum machines, cannon-fire snare drums, and acres of reverb.

Compared to the Egyptians own Fegmania!Element Of Light is almost sunny in its outlook, with a razor-sharp lyrical wit that relies on nuance rather than psychedelic wordplay.

After a year of touring, The Egyptians have corrected many of Hitchcock's less desirable quirks while injecting a muscular swagger into songs like "If You Were A Priest" and "Bass" while capable of astonishing subtlety on "Ted, Woody and Junior" and "Airscape".

Also, call us crazy, but "Somewhere Apart" just might be the best Plastic Ono song John Lennon never wrote. That Element of Light wears its "Rubber Soul" on its sleeve without getting too hokey or hyper-melodic is part of its charm. Andy Metcalfe (bass) and Morris Windsor (drums) no doubt share a love for the Fabs, but never to the point of outright emulation.

Ask any bass player worth their salt why the album swings and crackles with a brisk intensity and they'll tell you that bassist Metcalfe is the album's unsung hero, adding playfully fluid and melodic bass lines that never stray from the pocket.

Windsor complements Metcalfe's playing by holding things down with a minimum of flash and, together, they provide an agile musical backbone over which Hitchcock can stretch a song's flesh in all sorts of interesting directions.

The album was impressive enough to lead A&M Records to sign Hitchcock and the Egyptians to a long-term deal.

So why does nobody talk about Element Of Light when talk turns to great albums of the pre-grunge era?

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