ROBYN HITCHCOCK I Wanna Go Backwards (Yep Roc)

Where to begin with this box of abundant delights? Well, I’d never heard a Robyn Hitchock album prior to this 8 LP set (consisting of the previously issued albums “Black Snake Diamond Role” (1981), “I Often Dream Of Trains” (1984) and “Eye” (1990), and the five volume demos collection “While Thatcher Mauled Britain”) so it represented something of a plunge. And, of course, it was my loss: he’s an English eccentric in the grand tradition of Stanshall, Wyatt, Ayers, Barrett and Cope, yet he invests that English eccentricity with a post-punk immediacy and tension. He also has that rare talent of being able to mix music and comedy in a fashion that encourages repeated listens. His songs are stuffed with goofball lyrics, vivid juxtapositions and striking images that seem to tap into some kind of shared subconscious, as if he’s addressing the murk behind the damp, peeling wallpaper found in every home that nobody acknowledges.

“Black Snake Diamond Role” is the earliest album here, his 1981 solo debut, and it’s a gentle, painless introduction to Hitchcock’s bizarre soundworld. It’s almost like genetically modified new wave – Vivian Stanshall & The Attractions, maybe? – and the presence of some relatively familiar names in the credits (including Tom (sic) Dolby and Vince Ely of The Psychedelic Furs) perhaps explains why this sounds like Hitchcock in a more conventional mode. The merry likes of “Meat” practically drip with commercial potential, especially in the more adventurous chart climate of a quarter of a century ago, but as yet Hitchcock has failed to trouble the compilers of the Guinness books.

“I Often Dream Of Trains” is the box’s masterpiece, and maybe Hitchcock’s as well, given that he’s recently been performing it complete in concert. It trades the bouncy band sound of the debut for wintry acoustic introspection, recorded totally solo save for some bass, sax and harmonies. The hilarious acapella psychology lesson “Uncorrected Personality Traits” also titled a collection of Hitchcock’s greatest non-hits; “Trams Of Old London” plays like a game of Mornington Crescent seen through nostalgia’s dewy eyes; the title track is a delicious slice of sleep-soaked daffiness.

The much later “Eye” is perhaps a warmer, more consistent listen, but there’s still a patina of melancholy behind the playful linguistic ducking and diving. Substantially performed on acoustic guitar and piano, it doesn’t seem unduly sparse sonically; no hairshirt required here. “Cynthia Mask” shifts subtly from historical observation, namechecking Napoleon and Chamberlain, to something altogether more insidious. The gently heartrending transvestite tale “Queen Elvis” surely deserves an Antony And The Johnsons cover; “Linctus House” puts a brave, stoic face on heartbreak as it negotiates the shared sadness of a relationship decayed beyond all repair through distrust and miscommunication. “Clean Steve”, on the other hand, is sordid, mysterious and hilarious, like most of Hitchcock’s songs crammed full of deliciously observed details.

The five discs of demos should, by rights, demonstrate almost zero cohesion, given that they’re chronologically all over the shop. Yet any one of them makes for a perfectly satisfactory individual 40 minute listen. Considered as a whole, they’re splattered with top pop hits from an alternate universe (“All I Wanna Do Is Fall In Love”, “Grooving On An Inner Plane”), demonstrate Hitchcock’s delightful sense of humour at its sharpest (“Victorian Squid”, “Point It At Gran”), offer perfectly-pitched wheezy melancholia (“The Abandoned Brain”) and the best ever Syd Barrett song not actually written by Syd Barrett (“Parachutes & Jellyfish”).

As far as perceived value is concerned, the box set is a mix of the good and, uh, the not-so-good. It arrived with both a poster signed by the man himself and a secret code permitting the download of the entire box in MP3 format, and the pressings are all on 180 gram vinyl. A shame, then, that the box itself was a bit worn and dented even in the shrinkwrap, and that all that heavy vinyl had scissored through some of the thin paper inner sleeves, which barely offer enough purchase to extract the discs without horrible scratching sounds ensuing. None of which should detract from the delightful experience of happening upon a great deal of previously unheard and very entertaining music, of course.

The Soft Boys