Pride Lands Online


A review of I Often Dream of Trains by Robyn Hitchcock

It's One A.M. The radiator makes a quiet hissing sound, then falls silent. At my left, Renfield noiselessly dozes away. To the right, my darling Nick grumbles in his sleep, "Tonic, subdominant, tonic, dominant-uhh-subdominant, tonic." He's having that dream again where he's teaching the particulars of the blues progression to a college class. And I can't sleep for some odd reason. Perhaps the cause is some vague, unknown malaise from the depths of my subconscious, haunting me, sneaking around my psyche like a slowly enveloping fog. Holly would probably say it's the leftover spaghetti I ate out of Dave's refrigerator earlier this evening.

No matter. I get up from my place at the top of the piano, pad on quiet paws to the kitchen, and pour myself a small glass of sherry. Maybe some wine and the music will settle me. I take Robyn Hitchcock's I Often Dream of Trains from Dave's CD stack, put on headphones, and begin to listen.

At his best, Hitchcock is a great songwriter. Most of his finest albums are active, outgoing affairs with memorable melodies. His lyrics are often totally strange, yet brilliantly right. As Buddy would put it, "If that boy isn't certifiable, he darn well oughta be." But there's often a payoff in his madness. Hitchcock is most frequently compared to John Lennon and Syd Barrett--and that's not unreasonable. But I've gotten far off track here. Anyway, as I was saying, most of his best albums, such as Element of Light, Fegmania!, Black Snake Diamond Role, Perspex Island, Groovy Decoy, and the two great Soft Boys albums, Invisible Hits, and most especially Underwater Moonlight, are daytime albums. But ah! How very different this one is....

I Often Dream of Trains is spare and stripped-down in feel, with no drums at all and only occasional bass or piano, relying very heavily on simple acoustic guitar textures--in that sense, very much like Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. To be sure, there are a few busy, rambunctious numbers here, enough to get Buddy's dancing feet going, such as the tweedling piano-accompanied "Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl" (why, you ask? "So I could look at myself in the shower"). Or the nervous, almost manic-depressive "Sounds Great When You're Dead," an odd little ditty if there ever was one. Or the I'm-really-going-to-break-out-this-time incandescence of "This Could Be the Day."

Other songs inhabit a midpoint between the two extremes. "The Sleeping Knights of Jesus" is an ambling country-music-style tune with inscrutable lyrics about despair, death, and religion. "Mellow Together" is a character study about a stupid, abusive, football-player type who can't believe his relationship is ending. "My Favourite Buildings" is a jaunty little ditty about impermanence which sports a Beatlesque bridge. "The Bones in the Ground" is an almost sea-chantey-like song with funny, curious lyrics about sexual desire.

Two other of these songs are a cappella (just voices). These are "Furry Green Atom Bowl" and "Uncorrected Personality Traits." Here, one can focus very clearly on the lyrics, which are most peculiar, yet strikingly effective and sometimes hilarious. I cite the latter:

Uncorrected personality traits
That seem whimsical in child
May prove to be ugly
In a fully grown adult.

Lack of involvement with the father
Or overinvolvement with the mother
Can result in lack of ability
To relate to sexual peers.
And in homosexual leanings
Narcissism, transsexuality
Girls from the waist up
Men from the waist down
Attempts to be your own love object.
Reconcile your parents to you
By becoming both at once.

Even Marilyn Monroe was a man
But this tends to get overlooked
By our mother-fixated
Overweight, sexist media.

So, uncorrected personality traits
That seem whimsical in a child
May prove to be ugly
In a fully grown adult.

If you give in to them
Every time they cry
They will become little tyrants
But they won't remember why
Then when they are thwarted
By people in later life
They will become psychotic
And they won't make an ideal husband or wife.

The spoiled baby grows into
The escapist teenager who's
The adult alcoholic who's
The middle-aged suicide. Oy!

So uncorrected personality traits
That seem whimsical in a child
May prove to be ugly
In a fully grown adult.

Waggish, droll, very inspired. Does the speaker really mean what he says? Or is he overstating his case more than a little bit? Maybe he's a victim of what he warns against? Marilyn Monroe was not a man last I heard, and I'm sure the tabloids would have said by now if she were.

Most of these songs, though, have a curious, disembodied other-worldliness about them, their quiet, understated arrangements giving the selections an air of sometimes uneasy solitude. The opening "Nocturne (Prelude)" for solo piano sets the tone unmistakably. Other selections, such as the dark, contemplative "Flavour of Night," the thoughtful, Lennon-like "Cathedral," the by-turns nervous then haunting "I Used to Say I Love You," the eerily out-of-tune "Trams of Old London," the eccentric title track, the ghostly "Winter Love," the reflective guitar instrumental "Heart Full of Leaves," and the beautiful, enveloping "Autumn Is Your Last Chance" fulfill the promise, leaving me rapt and meditative.

The "Nocturne (Demise)," a somewhat more fully-scored reprise of the opening track, slowly winds its way to a close. The record ends. I sip the last of my sherry. It's now Two A.M. And I'm finally ready for sleep.


(transcribed by David Cleary)

{Submitted by Dave C.}
{HTML by Thumper}

The Pride Lands Online Multi-Media Archive


by Robyn Hitchcock

Midnight Music
catalog number: chime 00.05

1. Nocturne (Prelude)10. The Bones in the Ground
2. Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl11. My Favourite Buildings
3. Cathedral12. I Used to Say I Love You
4. Uncorrected Personality Traits13. This Could Be the Day
5. Sounds Great When You're Dead14. Trams of Old London
6. Flavour of Night15. Furry Green Atom Bowl
7. The Sleeping Knights of Jesus16. Heartful of Leaves
8. Mellow Together17. Autumn Is Your Last Chance
9. Winter Love18. I Often Dream of Trains
19. Nocturne (Demise)

All songs written by Robyn Hitchcock and copyright 1986 by Two Crabs Music.

Tracks 8 to 12 appear on the CD version but not on the original LP version.