After a splashy reunion with his old band The Soft Boys and a surprising cameo in Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate, English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock has settled back into the mellow, Byrds-esque mode with which he seems most comfortable. Recorded in Nashville with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Spooked may not contain one of the off-kilter but commercially viable hits that marked Hitchcock's best work with the Egyptians or The Soft Boys, but his whimsical pop sensibility remains in full effect. That's a relief after a string of records that weren't terrible, but didn't suggest that his heart was in them.
All too often on recent discs, Hitchcock's surreal lyrics have seemed forced, but on Spooked, they sound both effortless and integral to songs like "We're Gonna Live In The Trees," in which he gleefully anticipates being transformed into a bird, or the wry "Television," which matches a bouncy chorus of "binga-binga-bing-bong" with an intricate acoustic riff. Welch and Rawlings' contributions are subtle but vital, making Spooked sound richer than last year's disappointing Luxor. Welch lets her vocals waft gently underneath Hitchcock's, buttressing his distinctive but sometimes thin voice. Hitchcock's lifelong fascination with Bob Dylan, who's at least as big an influence as the oft-cited Syd Barrett, continues on Spooked with a respectfully somber version of "Tryin' To Get To Heaven Before They Close The Door." The post-apocalyptic novelty song "Demons And Fiends" crosses into self-parody, but Hitchcock achieves quiet menace on "Creeped Out," a psychedelic character study with the nicely Dylan-esque line "Your daddy's in the garage and that's never a good sign, and your mama's in the kitchen making demons in the pale moonshine."
Hitchcock has always stood out due to his ability to wring emotion out of bizarre imagery. When he's off his game or trying too hard, the results can be embarrassing, but that's not the case with Spooked, which stands up well next to his earlier acoustic works Eye and I Often Dream Of Trains. Hitchcock will likely always possess little more than niche appeal, but Spooked provides ample evidence that he'll be haunting those fans for many years to come.