I Often Dream Of Trains
The context: After Robyn Hitchcock's horrible experience on the bloated, big-budget sessions for his second solo album, Groovy Decay—still the weakest album of his career, and one he says he's never listened to—the former Soft Boys leader took a page from his musical heroes Syd Barrett and Bob Dylan, and dropped out of music almost entirely for two years. When his songwriting muse eventually reasserted itself, he went back to the basics, throwing out all previous pretensions to pop slickness for a set of largely acoustic, introspective material recorded almost entirely by himself on piano and guitar.
The greatness: Besides being a great album in its own right, Trains also heralded the beginning of Hitchcock's most creatively fertile period, continuing from 1985's Fegmania! through 1990's Eye. The spare, quiet, even solemn quality of Trains, which sounds like it was recorded in a church graveyard at midnight in November, proved to be the perfect framework for Hitchcock's crystalline songs. His offbeat lyrical sensibility was in particularly fine form here, laced with Freudian symbolism as well as melancholy—but sardonically funny—psychedelia. On songs like "Cathedral" and "The Bones In The Ground," Hitchcock contemplates the inevitability of death and wonders about the mysterious, subconscious elements of ourselves that affect us in ways we don't even know about. Though it was originally released in 1984, Trains' 1986 CD reissue is the definitive version, with five extra songs, including the terrific "My Favourite Buildings." Trains has its flaws, chiefly the momentum-derailing Beefheartian novelty "Furry Green Atom Bowl," but even the missteps feel at home in the context of the album.
Defining song: The title track, which draws together the themes of decay and psychosexuality. The lovely melody and wistful lyrics juxtapose the ineffable with the utterly mundane: "There in the buffet car / I wait for eternity, or Basingstoke, or Reading."