Once upon a time back when "punk" was beginning to add modifiers like "post" and "hardcore" there was a band called the Soft Boys. And the Soft Boys did something that very few bands ever do: they released a perfect album. The album was called Underwater Moonlight, and from the first guitar sting of "I Wanna Destroy You" to the final harmonies of the title track, it was full of fabulous melodies, sideways riffs and slyly perverse lyrics. It's one of the pinnacles of guitar rock, and would have sounded equally great in the mid-'60s or the mid-'90s. But it was hardly noticed at the time, and after it came out in 1980, the Soft Boys broke up.
Fast-forward two decades, and Underwater Moonlight has become one of those albums like Big Star's Sister Lovers or the Modern Lovers' debut more of an influence than actually heard but a couple of other things have happened in the interim. One of the Soft Boys, guitarist Kimberly Rew, wrote a couple of the best pop songs of the 1980s "Goin Down to Liverpool," a minor hit for The Bangles, and "Walking on Sunshine," a irresistible blast of populist pop soul that will be in movie trailers until the end of time. Another Soft Boy, head muse Robyn Hithcock, has become one of the cultiest cult artists ever, never quite breaking through to the mainstream, but sustaining an extremely high-quality and somewhat prolific output since the group broke up.
So like all bands where death and drugs haven't taken too much of a toll, the Soft Boys reunited in 2001 for a tour, and a couple of months ago finally released the follow-up to Underwater Moonlight. It's called Nextdoorland, and it picks up right where they left off over 20 years ago.
Almost literally, as a matter of fact with an almost-instrumental called "I Love Lucy" that shows off how nicely Hitchcock and Rew's guitars still play with each other. "Carry me back to now," they all chant in ghostly voices, setting the tone for the rest of the record: Sure, it's been 20 years, but we could have done this at any time.
Which of course, shouldn't be surprising, since Robyn Hitchcock has been mining this sound for most of his solo career. But to put it into perspective, you could compare this reunion album to the ill-fated Television reunion album from a decade ago. After all, Tom Verlaine's solo albums weren't all that far from what Television did, either. But their reunion album was a stone drag, and I think it was because of two things. Unlike Kimberly Rew here, Television's other guitarist, Richard Lloyd, was hardly there. And Verlaine was unable to write new songs equal to stunning material on that group's mid-'70s debut, Marquee Moon.
Unlike Robyn Hitchcock, who continues to write great songs. It's strange because he's written many songs with death and decay as a theme (or a main character!), Robyn's developed a reputation for being this weirdo, eccentric guy. An acquired taste. But really, he's always gone for Dylanesque silliness over Cavesque doominess. For all of his supposed weirdness, he's always understood the value of stick-in-your head melodies joined with jangly, hooky guitar parts. And Nextdoorland is full of 'em. So on songs like "My Mind Is Connected to Your Brain," "Sudden Town," and "Le Cherite," the twisting, winding, dual guitar parts and vocal harmonies are far more important than the words.
Of course, if you don't listen to the words, you'll miss things like "I screwed up when I was young/ But must I keep paying for it?/ Yes you must/ Yes you must."
Or: "Nobody wants to be vulnerable/ Everyone wants to be horrible/ Just like that pig in the underpass/ Sharing a trough with the Anti-Christ."
Best of all is "Mr. Kennedy," which combines a name-dropping road song ("Coming into Cleveland/ Riding in a van with Sebadoh") with an irresistible melody, and ends with Hitchcock and Rew's guitars sliding in and around each other. Pure seminal indie-rock fun.
Nextdoorland is one of the rarest of things: a reunion album that captures the spirit of what made the band special in the first place. The Byrds never did it, nor did The Buzzcocks. And while it doesn't quite reach the heights of Underwater Moonlight, very few albums ever will. But even 20 years ago, it would have been a helluva follow-up. Now what?