“Goodnight Oslo” invites comparison with “Ole Tarantula” because, even though Robyn Hitchcock has done umpteen solo albums, this is the second consecutive album on which he has used the Venus 3.
It’s starting to look like a long-term configuration.
I’ve read one report that this is Robyn’s “sunniest record in ages”.
On the strength of my first few listenings, I have to disagree.
If “Ole Tarantula” was light, “Goodnight Oslo” is dark.
If the former was the White Album, the latter is the Black Album.
“Ole” was built around a metaphor that life extends from birth to death via food and sex.
Although some of the songs were personal (e.g., “Underground Sun” and “N.Y. Doll”), most were abstract but witty explorations of this metaphor.
Even the more personal and poignant songs were about other people in Robyn’s life.
“Goodnight Oslo” seems to be more personal in that Robyn is singing about his life and not just observing the lives of others.
Over the course of the album, another metaphor emerges: that of saying goodbye to old habits and world views.
Robyn seems to have come to the realisation that he/we have to change, move on, get out of our shell, shed our skin.
While “Ole” contained fatherly guidance and gentle warnings (e.g., that “this Briggs might explode”), “Goodnight Oslo” seems to recognise that something has gone wrong, that this Briggs did actually explode.
It’s not for us to know whether this trauma is personal or cultural.
Robyn could be writing about the global economic crisis and the massive personal implosion that could and will happen for many people.
On the other hand, there are many references to ill health, addiction and distrust.
While overall “Ole” was playful and flippant in the way it treated its metaphor of life and death (in Shakespearean terms, “all’s well that ends well”), “Oslo” returns to the playing field to find that “all is not well”.
“What You Is”
The opening track is a mid-tempo soul groove that hints of Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
It even has some great girl group backing vocals and psychedelic shack-style guitar.
Initially, I wasn’t sure why Robyn had chosen it to start the album.
It’s a relatively polite and ineffectual throwaway, but it grows on you.
Lyrically, it suggests that you can transcend your past and your origins:
“Well, you've got to come from somewhere
“But you don't have to go back there, anymore.”
“Your Head Here”
The second track is a slightly faster jangly pop tune that reminded me of a cross between “Green Grow the Rushes” and “Echo Beach”.
It seems to be about the need to be alone occasionally, but I might be wrong.
This song starts off with some fun harmony vocals, but almost immediately breaks into a classic T Rex riff.
I was initially quite annoyed that it didn’t take the musical influence anywhere, but on reflection that’s taking the song too seriously.
It seems to be about how beautiful young people can waste the opportunity of youth (by grooving on a Saturday afternoon) and one day wake up years later with “emphysema, heart disease and gout”. How can you take that seriously??!!
It’s yet more lightweight, tongue in cheek fun.
But three songs in, I’m wondering whether there is going to be any substance in this new effort.
Fortunately, “I’m Falling” starts to hint of the qualities that are yet to come.
It’s a slower tempo and a more earnest vocal delivery.
There are beautiful intertwined guitars and harmonies, both of which prove Peter Buck’s point that you don’t have to move away from guitars to embrace the potential of vocals:
“There’s a thin line between being well and being ill.
“There’s a thin line between what you are and what you aren’t
“I’m afraid of loving you
“And you’re afraid I can’t
“I’m falling now
“I’m falling now
There’s more than a hint that one of the great pleasures in life is to cross the line, to take a risk, to get outside your comfort zone, even perhaps to transgress.
“Hurry for the Sky”
The pace increases substantially on this Dylanesque country and western shuffle.
Its target is the urban cowboys who have ridden roughshod over real people in their quest for massive wealth and fame:
“You can easily confuse
“Money with success
“Success is always relative
“Money is acute
“Money is absolute
“Money in your dress
“I am in a hurry for the sky”
The album has climbed out of its rut and is on a roll.
This track is slower and more atmospheric, making great use of the interplay between Robyn and Peter’s guitars.
It seems to be about the break-up of a sixteen year old business relationship. (or is it a sixteen year old addiction?)
Money, trust and humiliation are front of mind:
“And all I got was pie
“To shrivel up and die.”
“Up to Our Nex”
This track lightens the trend of the album.
It’s overtly romantic (“we’re up to out nex in love”), yet the underlying message is “Forgive yourself, and maybe you’ll forgive me”.
It makes great use of distorted guitars and horn arrangements.
Another song about love.
“Love between a woman and a man
“Is an intricate thing
“You’re not just friends
“You’re not just bodies on the sofa
“And when it’s over
“Will you speak to each other again?”
There are some nice horn arrangements, a la the band Love.
And I like the way Robyn rhymes “sofa” with “it’s over”!
Not tender loving care, but a TLC of another kind:
“Tryptisol. Librium. Carbritol.”
A cocktail of drugs that has apparently proven fatal in the case of Nick Drake and Brian Epstein.
The beginning (or continuation?) of the drug and addiction theme.
The title track is the last song and the longest song on the album.
Having arrived at the end, I’ve realised how much my impressions of the album as a whole have been influenced by this one song.
There is a compelling, almost military beat from the drums.
The guitars are fantastic, as usual for anyone who has been lucky enough to witness the Venus 3 live.
A cello interjects occasionally and to good effect.
This is a song that will grow over time to be a favourite in Robyn’s catalogue.
Something weird happened in a room in Norway in 1984. Morris was there. Robyn was there. Amphetamines might have been there.
Something started then and possibly kept on going, until recently or perhaps for 16 years.
It’s tempting to speculate about drug addiction, but I know nothing about Robyn’s predilections.
It could even be about cigarette smoking. His interviews are replete with references to the Smoke Age.
Whatever, the song is about finally working up the courage to say no. To give it up, to break the habit, to shed your skin, to start again.
Overall, if life is the stretch between birth and death and time is limited, there is more to be done than food and sex.
The positive in “Goodnight Oslo” seems to be that, during our time on Earth, we can do better than amphetamines and nicotine.
We can make time for relationships and trust and love, even if occasionally we end up on the sofa as a result!