Robyn Hitchcock sums up the impetus behind his 20th solo studio outing with an unusually succinct quote: “I’ve always wanted to make a folk record produced by Joe Boyd and now I have: thank you, universe!” It would seem that the serial surrealist's penchant for punctuating everything with food, flora, and sex metaphors does not extend to conveying the simple joy of working with the legendary producer of such iconic albums as Nick Drake's Bryter Later and Fairport Convention's Liege & Lief, just to name a few. Hitchcock applies that same newfound predilection for levelheadedness to the songs on The Man Upstairs as well, offering up five choice covers and five new originals that flirt with the fantastic, yet avoid an unnecessary trip down the rabbit hole -- even the Gillian Welch-illustrated, netherworld-fixated cover art feels relatively settled. The album's brightest diamond in the rough, a surprisingly moving and wistful take on the Psychedelic Furs' "The Ghost in You," appears right out of the gate, and like much of the material to follow, utilizes the talents of Boyd, cellist Jenny Adejayan, pianist Charlie Francis, and vocalist Anne Lise Frøkedal from the Norwegian indie pop duo I Was a King, all of whom, especially Frøkedal, whose ethereal harmonies are so (tastefully) omnipresent throughout, help to reign in some of the structural elasticity that sometimes has a tendency to undermine Hitchcock's all acoustic outings. Sonically, The Man Upstairs operates somewhere between Eye and I Often Dream of Trains (a very English folk take on the Doors "Crystal Ship" would have fit perfectly on the latter), but outside of the truly spectacular "Trouble in Blood" and the evocative "San Francisco Patrol," the originals (and the remaining covers) feel largely ephemeral, especially for someone so inclined to unmitigated prolificacy.
AllMusic Review by James Christopher Monger