The Soft Boys, Underwater Moonlight (1980)

The Soft Boys, 'Underwater Moonlight' (1980)Recorded at the peak of their preternatural powers, the Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight is generally regarded as the band’s one true “masterpiece,” perhaps the only example from their chaotic five-year tenure of an album-length project seen through from beginning to end as a fully realized demonstration of the group’s demented genius.

There had been several memorable singles, a couple of EPs, and one other long-player -- A Can of Bees (1979) -- a crafty collection of cracked classics in its own right (“The Pigworker,” “Leppo and the Jooves,” “The Rat’s Prayer,” “Sandra’s Having Her Brain Out”), all penned by the inimitable Robyn Hitchcock. Still, Bees doesn’t quite possess the unfettered focus of Moonlight.

Side One kicks off with the loud and fun “I Wanna Destroy You,” which reads like an ironic punk anthem -- kind of a clever reimagining of the unfocused aggression so many bands of the late 70s were trying to articulate. It also rocks in a nearly headbanging way. The wonderfully surreal “Kingdom of Love” follows, a pure pop gem that more formally introduces the way-above-average guitar work from Kimberly Rew one finds on this piece of wax. “Positive Vibrations” -- the only non-masterpiece on this side of the LP -- resembles a fast-paced cheer, voicing unfettered optimism (with a little sitar thrown in to make it sound at least a little “weird”). “I Got the Hots” -- possibly my fave track of the bunch -- is an infectious, slinky serenade with bad intentions. The side concludes with “Insanely Jealous,” an incredible, momentum-gathering paean to paranoia that must be heard to be believed.

Side Two opens with what is probably the weakest track of the lot, the generic-sounding “Tonight.” The hard-driving, 7/4-time instrumental “You’ll Have to Go Sideways” comes next -- a nice save -- followed by the freak-out “Old Pervert.” The latter comes in several versions, the best (in my opinion) appearing on the original Armageddon LP, a climactic moment for Rew’s jaw-dropping guitar. The solo (coming -- in that original version -- after Hitchcock spews the line “skin it back”) is a mind-melder. Next is the “The Queen of Eyes” -- an uncanny simalcrum of The Byrds, appropriately twisted into something utterly Soft Boys. The title track that concludes the record is yet another triumph, an endearing, multipart pop workout that neatly punctuates the proceedings.

In the liner notes to The Soft Boys 1976-81, a 1993 double-CD chronicling the band’s twisty career path, Hitchcock recounts a conversation with bassist Matthew Seligman. “‘Look, let’s make this one brilliant album,’” said Hitchcock, adding “‘The world can then end, but at least we’ll know we made it.’”

The Soft Boys’ subsequent demise (setting aside that one-off reunion disc in 2002) does lend an added apocalyptic layer of sorts to this one, heightening the sense of urgency one feels from the initial power chords that ring in the opener, followed closely by the band’s expression of a desire to destroy. And even if the band found it hard to go on afterwards, they did manage to make that one brilliant record that kills.

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