Robyn Hitchcock starts this album with a firm declaration: ”Napoleon wore a black hat, ate lots of chicken, and conquered half Europe.”
The easy, dogged confidence in his voice makes you understand why at least one standard reference work — The New Trouser Press Record Guide — calls Hitchcock ”one of the great undiscovered treasures of modern pop music.” You can also understand why, two years ago, he became yet another of the many artists from the independent record scene to be signed by a major label. But the irredeemable weirdness lurking in his songs — we never learn why it matters how much chicken Napoleon ate — might be one reason his major label chose to give this album back to an independent. It’s an acoustic performance in which Hitchcock is accompanied mostly only by his own guitar: Maybe someone thought the weirdness would sound too stark.
Actually, Eye, like much of Hitchcock’s work, sounds disturbing and reassuring at once. You can’t always understand what he means; the Napoleon song turns out to be about someone wearing, to quote the title, an unexplained ”Cynthia Mask.” And meanings you can understand sometimes seem to be informed by a strange creepiness. ”Oh, and I’ll sculpt you,” Hitchcock sings, in a song called ”Queen Elvis”; ”Oh, and I’ll sculpt you, till you bleed.”
But still Hitchcock’s voice sounds wistful, sometimes even bewildered. The guitar accompaniments are never anything you’d expect; they’re based neither on familiar strumming nor on repeated riffs, but instead seem to be shaped specially for each song. And the songs are touching, as purely crafted as anything by Elvis Costello or the later Beatles. Musically, they draw you in, stimulating and even caressing you, while the meaning of the words remains obscure. In the end, everything makes a desperate — and sometimes loving — kind of sense. A-