Reflecting on the now-routine practice of record labels releasing old albums with bonus material, British singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock says, "Graham Greene didn't have to keep coming up with bonus tracks every time they reprinted the book Brighton Rock."
It's a good point. But if Hitchcock harbors any reservations about bonus tracks, you certainly wouldn't be able to tell from the 50-plus extra songs included on I Wanna Go Backwards, the new five-disc box set that presents three of his key albums restored and expanded, an additional two discs' worth of b-sides, outtakes, home demos, and (as if that weren't enough) a fourth album via free download. And, though Hitchcock's comments hint that bonus tracks threaten the integrity of the albums in their original form, Backwards hardly qualifies as a cheap or uncalled-for grab for money you've already spent.
One would be hard-pressed, in fact, to find an artist as worthy, with a catalog as ripe for reexamination, as Hitchcock — even though this material has been revisited once already by Rhino. Strangely enough, the Rhino reissues of these albums — Hitchcock's 1981 solo debut Black Snake Diamond Role, 1984's I Often Dream of Trains, and Eye from 1990 — came with different bonus material, which should rile collectors and completists and confuse neophyte fans. Still, throughout the hundred or so songs here, including 20 previously unreleased, not to mention the downloadable sophomore album, 1982's Groovy Decay, and two songs from 1986's Invisible Hitchcock, it becomes strikingly clear: It's just too damned convenient for Hitchcock to have been filed under "psychedelic folk" in the music history books.
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In truth, Hitchcock's work encompasses a much, much broader span. On the first album alone, before you even get to the bonus stuff, he straddles new wave, pop, rock, psychedelic, and folk and strains them all through a warped sensibility that's unmistakably his own in spite of easy comparisons. "I Watch the Cars," for example, sounds like an art-damaged, swaggering version of "Strobe Light" by the B-52's rubbing up on the dance floor with the early, punkish Police number "Dead End Job." Meanwhile, "Do Policemen Sing" sounds like a more sinister, atmospheric cousin of Bowie's "Fame," in a tense, dark-alley faceoff with Agents of Fortune-era Blue Öyster Cult. And "Out of the Picture" recalls the melodic harmonizing of the Byrds. But Hitchcock shepherds all these elements toward his own, singular vision. Perhaps most important, Hitchcock's work evokes its original time and place, the vibe of his straining the 1960s through the lens of Margaret Thatcher's frustrated England in the 1980s, yet sounds startlingly fresh and universal. In hindsight, Hitchcock achieves an impossibly agile balance in that his infamous quirkiness doesn't sound forced or pretentious and never overwhelms the music. How many artists can we claim that about?