‘I Often Dream of Trains’ is the third solo album from former Soft Boy Robyn Hitchcock. Released in 1984, the album is also the first real example of the acoustic side of Hitchcock. Limiting himself to just piano and acoustic guitar on the vast majority of tracks, ‘I Often Dream of Trains’ is a lo-fi production piece from an era when lo-fi production pieces were seemingly extinct. Not that we should be surprised with Hitchcock bucking the trend; the psychedelic power pop of the Soft Boys was hardly the norm in the punk dominated late seventies.
If you’re sick of all acoustic artists sounding the same and seemingly forgetting all emotions bar sadness and heartbreak then you should definitely track this down. Hitchcock’s gloriously silly humour is apparent throughout this album and melded with his warped view on love, life and the universe; it creates extremely warm and natural sounding songs. Hitchcock’s music is both beautiful and funny, not in an out-loud ha-ha way, more of a gentle lasting way. If this album does not cause the listener to smile somewhere along the way there is something seriously wrong with them. On the ode to trains title track, lyrics like “There in the buffet car I dream of eternity, or Basingstoke, or Reading” are wonderfully English. Like a modern day Ray Davies, Hitchcock makes observations on English life free of cynicism or anger. This is a feel good album and even lyrics like “dyin' of starvation in the gutter, that is all the future holds for me, or alcoholic poisoning in the toilet of my choice, that's all there is, as far as I can see” are sang with a wry smile.
Indeed, ‘Englishness’ is a very large part of this album. It's surprising that R.E.M. and other late eighties and early nineties American artists are so influenced by Hitchcock: maybe the ‘Englishness’ is a novelty? Musically ‘I Often Dream of Trains’ is most obviously influenced by folk, both American and English, and sixties pop, but the album is rooted mostly in the eccentricities of the English gentleman; from Noel Coward to Syd Barrett, Robyn Hitchcock is a holder of that flame in a time when Americanisation is even more rife than ever. My biggest annoyance with English artists has long been the tendency for them to sing in an American accent. It's almost like saying: “I want to be something I’m not”, which as an artist is completely pointless seeing as art is all about expressing yourself. Robyn Hitchcock certainly doesn’t sing in an American accent, except on the mock country jig “Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus” that is, and he’s certainly expressing himself. You are transported into Hitchcock’s world throughout. A world where you sit daydreaming on a train laughing to yourself as you make up silly rhymes in your head like “I used to say I love you, it wasn’t what I meant, what I really meant was, come on in my tent,”. Charmingly wistful songs like ‘My Favourite Buildings’ and ‘Trams of Old London’ are beautiful examples of the Hitchcock world: “my favourite buildings are all falling down, seems like I dwell in a different town, but why should I bother with painting them brown, when they'll all be pulled down in the end.”
Hitchcock is a huge Dylan fan. He’s even recorded an album of Dylan covers, and to me Hitchcock is like a latter day English Dylan, not those wet folk singers whose record companies tout as “the new Dylan”. High praise indeed, and on the evidence of this album I would hope to get some subscribers to that opinion.