Admission: I’ve never been able to get over the fact that the rest of Robyn Hitchcock’s material – both before and after 1980 – doesn’t sound exactly like Underwater Moonlight. For that one record, everything clicked lyrically and musically, his elsewhere labored (annoying?) eccentricity briefly and perfectly married to a dense, guitar-driven pop-rock catchiness that produced an LP with nary a clunker. The dissolution of that tight Soft Boys lineup and a further retreat into goofy themes and musical jokes make his subsequent work very frustrating to me, but there are a few winsome tunes scattered throughout his discography, and this debut solo single, “The Man Who Invented Himself,” is certainly one of them. Its bouncy piano and horns cast it as the well-groomed, gainfully-employed relative of “Gigolo Aunt,” a sweet li’l nugget that displays considerable popwriting talent and polish with the easy-breeziness of White Album McCartney. Thumbs up! Thumbs up all day long! The warped space-bubblegum of “Dancing on God’s Thumb” has some nice full-band interplay that marks it as similar to late-period Soft Boys – and most members of the group did in fact play on the Black Snake Diamond Role sessions, so the album is a relatively safe investment for Soft Boys fans nervous about dipping into the solo years – but the vaguely dancefloor-appropriate groove makes it clear that Hitchcock is stretching out in odd, and not totally satisfying, new ways.
The recent Yep Roc reissues inexplicably ignore the non-album B-side, so vinyl (along with some older CDs) is currently the only place to get “Dancing…”. Weirder still, the original, horn-laced mix of “The Man Who Invented Himself” has gone missing; both the Rhino and the Yep Roc CDs remove those jolly, skronky tootlers, and their absence gives the song a leaner, more intimate feel that doesn’t improve it. An unfortunate, mildly irritating situation that oughta be rectified.