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Soft Parade

 

The Soft Boys: Nextdoorland

Matador, 2002

Rating: 3.7

 

 

Posted: October 11, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

The very fact of a new Soft Boys album -- coming some 22 years after the band's last proper studio effort, the seminal Underwater Moonlight -- carries with it a strong and tempting urge to view said album with a nostalgic goodwill. But it's impossible to listen to the chiming, studio-crafted sheen of Nextdoorland without wondering just why it had to be made as a Soft Boys record. Save for the distinctive stamp of singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, and the serpentine guitar interplay of Hitchcock and Kimberley Rew, Nextdoorland bears little resemblance to the Boys' original obtuse and spiked sound.

If anything, the disc most closely recalls Hitchcock's mid-'80s-early-'90s work with the Egyptians (a band which also featured Soft Boys drummer Morris Windsor). Except that lyricist Hitchcock has traded in the surrealistic pillow on which his sleeping head dreamed up such flights of fancy as Fegmania's lushly eccentric "Egyptian Cream" or Moonlight's "Queen of Eyes." Instead, Hitchcock paints with the same (decidedly less abstract) brush that's shaded most of his work since 1991's Perspex Island. Songs like "Pulse of My Heart," "La Cherite" and "Unprotected Love," while very nice, sound much closer in spirit to the kind of safe elevator music the pointed psychedelic barbs of Moonlight and 1979's A Can of Bees seemed to react against. It's an easy and obvious criticism, but it happens to be true in this case: Hitchcock's gradual decline, in terms of songwriting potency, can be traced to his evolving use of straightforward, irony-free and mawkish sentiment. Although Perspex Island's jaggedly bouncy "Ultra Unbelievable Love" and most of the (admittedly gorgeous) songs on 1993's rather, er, mature Respect mined such conventional songwriting tropes to decent effect, for the most part Hitchcock's '90s work sloughed off the barbed edges of his style, and it's that all too edge-free approach that so colors Nextdoorland. (Not that using the dreaded word "love" in a song title or dropping his usual barriers of abstruse, Barrett-meets-Dylan-meets Lennon wordplay has always been a formula for disaster, as, for example, the stinging "I Used to Say I Love You," from 1984's I Often Dream of Trains, makes clear. But we digress...)

To be fair, no, not all of Nextdoorland is all prettiness and lack of bite (although it is wrapped, start to finish, in a populist sheen of which even Mutt Lange would approve). "Mr. Kennedy" rides an amiably low-key groove, recalling Hitchcock's 1999 effort Jewels for Sophia, and hearing Hitchcock name-drop Sebadoh is a pleasurable lark that makes up for its generally unexciting (although agreeable) chorus. Likewise, "Sudden Town"'s snaky, engaging guitar lope and memorable melody carry its unremarkable lyricism over the finish line, and the opening (mostly) instrumental "I Love Lucy" marries the Soft Boys' trademark lyrical absurdism and attention to musical dynamics with pleasing results.

Don't get me wrong: Nextdoorland is quite listenable. And no one can fault Hitchcock for growing older, as he's done quite gracefully on records like Sophia and Respect. But after more than two decades of exalted "influential artist" status -- the Soft Boys having been name-checked by R.E.M. and the Replacements, among others -- the band's comeback effort ought to nod, even if only in passing, to its earlier work, or why record as the Soft Boys at all? Surely Rew's songwriting royalties for Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine" song have kept him out of the poorhouse, so presumably money isn't a factor (and anyone banking on a Soft Boys record raking in the cash is in for a boorish, if not outright rude, awakening to begin with).

While it's not exactly an insult to say that Nextdoorland sounds more like a Hitchcock album than the Soft Boys, it's not exactly a compliment, either. It's a nice record, yes, but there was a time when describing a Soft Boys album as "nice" wouldn't have put you on the band's Christmas card list. Lacking the qualities that one associates the Soft Boys (and indeed, sporting some that seem in direct opposition), and sounding more like the kind of music Hitchcock left the band behind for, Nextdoorland ultimately sounds both redundant and unnecessary.

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