What he is, is what he is…

Robyn Hitchcock never became the mainstream star some of us once thought he would be. Maybe his stuff was just too damn intelligent for its own good. Whatever the case, he's basically remained a cult artist, albeit one with a very large following, despite his immense influence on various forms of '80s psychedelia and alternative music, not to mention inspiring R.E.M. "more than the Byrds ever did" and once politely turning down an offer to produce the Replacements. It's been hit or miss for the artist since that '80s heyday. But his unique John Lennon-meets-Syd Barrett (at his craziest) meets-Bob Dylan aesthetic has worn well over the years. And he's been on a creative high since the brief 2002 reunion of his legendary first band, the Soft Boys.

What has changed over the years, however, is that Hitchcock's abstract yet meaningful lyrics have become more personal and direct, no longer just comically-psychotic takes on the themes of sex and death, his early obsessions. He even seems to be influenced by — dare it be said? — love. In fact, the guy who once perversely sang "I feel like making love to a photograph [because] photographs don't smell" on his first album is now offering up lyrics like "I'm afraid of loving you and you're afraid I can't" on "I'm Falling," one of several love songs on Goodnight Oslo, his 24th solo album, but only his second with the Venus 3, a band that's almost R.E.M., featuring as it does Peter Buck, multi-instrumentalist (and Young Fresh Fellow) Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin, the latter two who've long been part of the post-Bill Berry version of that group.

"What You Is" kicks off the disc with a blue-rockin' bang, featuring the kind of extraordinary songcraft that's virtually extinct these days, as well as a great wordplay chorus of "It doesn't matter what you was, it's what you is/And what you is, is what you are" — less about past regret, however (as one might expect) than it is the longtime rock 'n' roll notion of reinventing oneself. (And leave it to Hitchcock to come up with a line like "You might have been Columbia, releasing orange 45's," following that with a choir of girls singing, "How does it feel?" in reference to Mr. Dylan and his most famous Columbia 45.) Between that song and the dark, haunting, epic closing title song, there's not a bad tune on the album, though some are much better than others.

"Hurry for the Sky" is a beautiful, country-esque tale that could stand proudly alongside some of Dylan's best of that form; "TLC" is a vibrant '50s-meets-ragtime magic-changes tune that includes a list of psychiatric medications ("Triptisol, Librium, Carbatrol") as its chorus; and no one's currently writing lyrics as compelling as Hitchcock's description of "the love between a woman and a man" on the menacing "Intricate Thing": "You got all kinds of seeds that you don't know you're seeding, all kinds of needs that you don't know you're needing, all kinds of signals that you don't know you're reading, little drops of blood that you don't know you're bleeding." Nice! Very nice indeed.

Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 play Friday, April 17, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030.

Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].