The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Reviews

Robert Wyatt
Back Catalogue Reissues Alex Denney , November 21st, 2008 05:28

This week sees the release of a final batch of reissues from Domino providing a comprehensive overview of the wonderfully ornery career of Robert Wyatt. Striking out as a founder member and drummer of ‘60s prog rockers Soft Machine, Wyatt went on to discover his own abilities as a singer and solo songwriter of unique timbre, combining a grown-up take on the nursery rhyme psychedelia of the Canterbury scene he helped create with a ready facility for ambient and jazz textures. Here The Quietus takes the plunge on a formidable body of work not readily digestible into soundbite...

1974: Rock Bottom

Rock Bottom

Passing up on 1970’s The End Of An Ear, ostensibly Wyatt’s solo debut but later dismissed by its author as juvenilia, notice is served in abundance of the man’s talent with what is still considered by many to be his defining masterwork, Rock Bottom. Famously recorded after a drunken fall from a third-story window left him paralysed from the waist down, the 1974 opus was in fact largely written before the accident but remains a deeply troubling record whose eerie, iridescent textures sound alternately wondrous (the sublime ‘Sea Song’) and terrifying, as in ‘Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road’ which sounds like stippled sunlight reaching a drowning man 20 feet below the surface.

Wyatt himself maintains that he can’t see what the fuss is all about and judges Rock Bottom to be “quite euphoric”, but there’s no denying the record derives much of its power from its occupying of a liminal space deep in the psyche; a place where thought patterns slip their moorings in reality and all kinds of weirdness starts looming up out of the deep, dark blue.

1975: Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard

After such intensely personal ruminations a relaxing of the artistic muscle was always going to be on the cards. Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard carries the can better than most, a modestly conceived collection of adaptations and arrangements of other people’s music featuring only one original composition in ‘Solar Flares’’ murky, sideways funk. As you might imagine it’s not all splashing in the shallows, however, although the fruity ‘Sonia’ and ‘Soup Song’’s sunnyside-up r’n’b strut do offer pointers in that direction. Phil Manzanera lends an air of synthetic glam to the epic proceedings on ‘Team Spirit’, while the queasy brass-led flutter of ‘5 Black Notes And 1 White Note’ is loosely based on Offenbach’s ‘Barcarolle’ but actually comes closest to Rock Bottom’s fathomless depths.

1981: Nothing Can Stop Us

The fallow songwriting patch continued with 1981’s Nothing Can Stop Us full-length which collected cover versions released as singles which were generally reflective of Wyatt’s increasing commitment to the political left. This was Wyatt’s attempt to remove the ambiguity from his records and focus instead on making “un-misusable music - music that couldn't be appropriated by the right”. As the lone self-penned effort ‘Born Again Cretin’ is downbeat and sonically modest, if lyrically seething at the injustices of apartheid (it was around this time that UN proposals to place trade embargos on the regime were vetoed by noted free trade enthusiasts Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher). Among the Communist agit-prop and acapella war-time ditties lurked something truly fantastic, however, in a heartbreaking take on disco outfit Chic’s ‘At Last I Am Free’, originally packaged as a sacreligious double A-side with revered segregation ballad ‘Strange Fruit’, also included here.

1985: Old Rottenhat

By the time his next studio album rolled around in the shape of 1985’s Old Rottenhat egalitarian politics had given way to dirge-like despondency at the resurgent right, and much of the record feels prosaic and texturally impoverished to quite a shocking degree when you consider many of the man’s achievements before and after its release. Worst of all, Wyatt’s God-given voice is allowed to sound listless as wallpaper wreaths amid the general miasma of funereal keys, sulking bass and pre-programmed beats. ‘Gharbzadegi’ raises expectations briefly with its forceful piano lines, but there’s precious little to discover here except a puzzling lack of fluency reflected in the joyless abstract shards that ‘grace’ the covermount. Such were the 80s, we suppose.

1991: Dondestan

Lonesome keys were deployed to rather more poetic effect by 1991’s Dondestan, reissued here as the 1998 remaster Dondestan Revisited. Recorded after a spell living in Catalonia, the album takes a series of poems by Wyatt’s wife and frequent collaborator Alfreda Benge as its focal point but is liberally smattered with evidence of the now-familiar political themes. Nonetheless it feels a little thin and compositionally adrift in places - perhaps that’s why it’s the origin of the term ‘Wyatting’, the custom of playing obscure records on pub jukeboxes to annoy punters.

1997: Shleep

Away from the political preoccupations which had come to dominate much of his output over the previous twenty years or so, Shleep feels in some ways like a natural companion piece of Rock Bottom; an intimate yet expansive affair built around woozily ascending arrangements where swirling currents conspire to pull the listener under. It’s certainly a good deal more accessible than the 1974 record, featuring what might well be Wyatt’s most anthemic moment to date (Monkees covers excepted) in the nigglingly upbeat shuffle of Eno collaboration ‘Heaps Of Sheep’. With the nucleus of a performing cast that would stick around ‘til present day, plus a homegrown production job that rightfully puts Wyatt’s reedy voice, trumpet and top-end drumming centre stage, we’re free to explore some of the most airy and evocative music of his career. That it sounds so much like falling asleep is ironic - the album owes much of its existence to a prolonged period of insomnia on Wyatt’s part. Call it escapism if you will, then, but it’s an escapism with literally the weight of the world on its shoulders: “The weight of dust exceeds the weight of settled objects / What can it mean, such gravity without a centre / Is there freedom to un-be / Is there freedom from will-to-be?” (‘Free Will And Testament’).

2003: Cuckooland

Pushing ever deeper into sonically expressive waters Cuckooland makes persuasive case for the value of magic and superstition in an otherwise dreary and remorseless world. If Wyatt is occasionally guilty of overdoing it a bit on the cosmic synth modulations then it’s a minor quibble on a record brimful of ravishing moments like ‘Old Europe’, a song about the love affair between Miles Davis and Juliette Greco that is wonderful in its loungey evocation of a sultry Paris evening in the 1950s. ‘Just A Little Bit’ is ironically dedicated to atheist bully boy and God Delusion author Richard Dawkins, while ‘Forest’’s seductive, meandering textures mask a haunting lyric about the Nazi death camps by Alfreda Benge: “The bullet head boys with their baby blue eyes / their Donner und Blitzen / the lily white gadje / religiously hatching their plots / in the eyries of eagles”.

The Robert Wyatt reissue back catalogue is out now on Domino and also features a collection of EPs and remixes, Eps, along with a recording of his acclaimed Theatre Royal Drury Lane performance from 1974.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.