Those who know Hitchcock only from his increasingly precious solo albums are in for a pleasant shock. Oh, he was just as morbid and hallucinatory a lyricist 21 years ago, but on Underwater Moonlight, Hitchcock is a band member, one of four struggling musicians with a recording budget in the triple digits. The singer's chilly Roald Dahl-isms are far less baroque here, tempered by desperation and pushed around by playing that splits the difference between The Clash's dirty rudiments and The Police's angular professionalism.
The brief existence and critical legacy of The Soft Boys is well documented in Fricke's essay. Like the Velvet Underground, The Soft Boys were far more successful as a template for other bands than they were in the marketplace. (A sample of the album's uniquely wide reach: One of Uncle Tupelo's finest moments was a B-side cover of UM's opener, "I Wanna Destroy You.") The reasons become obvious on disc two of the reissue, which collects studio outtakes. (Disc one almost doubles UM's length with terrific finished leftovers; the package is really three albums' worth of material.) As might be expected, the resulting mosaic lacks the accessibility of Underwater Moonlight proper. But as a live textbook of how to forge an album, the outtakes are considerably more instructive than, say, the Derek and the Dominoes scribbles on that band's boxed set ten years ago. Yet even the second disc's exhaustive look at the process doesn't fully document the alchemy of making a great record, and the mystery makes UM more appealing rather than less.
Both discs reanimate a year of intense promise that never saw fruition. From December 1979's release of The Clash's London Calling to the first Pretenders disc, Peter Gabriel's third album and even The Police's Zenyata Mendata, 1980 sounded like the proof that punk's ethos -- if not punk -- had rectified the damage done by its enemies -- perceived and real. It's hard to pinpoint the culprit for turning what could have been a musical decade to equal the '60s into ten years of aspartame and hair gel. By the next year, the traditionally white rock audience lulled into premature conservatism by Reagan and Thatcher got the music it deserved while those for whom it was not morning in America (or elsewhere) eventually embraced rap. As a snapshot of what turned out to be the end of the beginning and a portrait of what might have been, Underwater Moonlight is peerless, maybe more vital now than ever.