Eccentric British songwriter Robyn Hitchcock is the master of the unexpected lyric. Take the opening lines of “The Man Who Loves the Rain” from his exceptional 2022 album, Shufflemania. Over gentle psychedelic guitar playing, he sings, “respect the dead,” followed by the sucker punch: “you will be joining them soon.”
When asked how those lyrics came about, Hitchcock, who is on the phone from London, credits them to an unknown force. “My thoughts, my ideas, my words come from my own head, but I don’t know what puts them there,” he says. “They may all be planted by an external agency.”
The prolific songwriter, whose career began in the late 1970s with English psychedelic rock band the Soft Boys and has released solo albums since 1981’s Black Snake Diamond Role, had an uncharacteristic dry spell of creativity the years after his 2017 self-titled release. “I was writing songs, but I wasn’t really ever finishing them,” he says of this period. “I wasn’t very convinced. I spent a long time working on a collection of piano songs, which I still haven’t finished.”
Thankfully, inspiration struck again after a trip to Mexico and a visit to the palace of Quetzalpapalotl. “I don’t know if I was brushed by the wings of Quetzalcoatl, the feathery serpent god, but I definitely felt some sort of charge when I was down there,” he says. “That actually got me finishing songs again, for which I’m very grateful.”
Hitchcock recorded his part of the album at his home in Nashville before sending it to various musician friends for their contributions at the start of the pandemic lockdown in 2020. The resulting 10-song Shufflemania is immediate sounding and a late-career highlight. It includes stellar special guests, including Johnny Marr, Sean Lennon, Pat Sansone (Wilco) and more.
It all begins with the rollicking opener “The Shuffle Man,” where Brendan Benson of The Raconteurs plays bass, drums, guitar and sings harmony vocals, while Hitchcock sings lead and plays guitar. From there, shadowy characters haunt the album, including a detective that pops up in the pleasing psychedelia of “The Inner Life of Scorpio” to the atmospheric “Noirer than Noir” and “The Man Who Loves the Rain,” which tips its fedora to the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler.
Another lurking presence in Shufflemania is death itself. It makes an appearance in “Socrates in Thin Air,” which recalls the solo work of John Lennon and the bluesy shuffle “Midnight Tram to Nowhere.” Hitchcock says the subject is not new to his work. “My songs have always had a fair amount of death in them,” he says. “Death is the last gift you open. Nobody really wants to open it, but everyone has to.”
The driving rocker “The Sir Tommy Shovell” was inspired by a simple wish during the Covid lockdowns. “‘Sir Tommy’ is definitely an imaginary pub,” he says. “I was sitting in Nashville thinking, wouldn’t it be lovely to be back in a British pub right now.”
The closing number on Shufflemania is Hitchcock’s own take on the hopeful rock ballad in the tradition of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Lennon’s “Imagine.” In it, there’s hope for a future when “bullies will not run the human race” and “the color of your skin won’t be the great divide.” “Some people think it is very optimistic, and other people think it is a despairing song,” Hitchcock says. “In a way, it shows what your own mindset is thinking.”
Longtime listeners may be surprised that Hitchcock has lived in Nashville since 2015. His songs are so distinctly British. “I may well have been rewired in a lot of ways to be American, but, at heart, I’m British,” he says. “I have to return to the underworld. I have to go back where it’s damp and dismal. I have to water my roots.”
Hitchcock will perform songs from Shufflemania and other albums from his storied career with a band by San Francisco songwriter Kelley Stoltz for his Santa Cruz show. Hitchcock is turning 70 in March and plans to keep writing songs, though he says he will most likely perform less frequently. “I don’t know how much more I’m going to be doing any of this,” he adds. “So, I would say if you want to see me with a band, this is a very good opportunity. I don’t think there will necessarily be another one.”
Robyn Hitchcock performs Wednesday, March 22, at 7:30pm. $36.75 plus fees. Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. folkyeah.com