Originally on Twisted Ear
Left with a broken back after an alcohol-fuelled flight from a window in ’73, Wyatt’s been poking at the mainstream with an uncompromising, jazzy stick and a wry smile for four decades. Wheeling briskly in and out to drop the odd- odd– cover into popular consciousness (I’m A Believer, Shipbuilding), he emerged from Soft Machine’s prog-jazz to become one of music’s great collaborators- Pink Floyd, Costello, Weller, Eno, Sakamoto, Bjork, even bloody Sting- and one of its most insistent and empathic embracers and innovators. With a resolutely idiosyncratic personality and a voice of stunning, scratchily half-spoken English ordinariness that can both repel and reveal, he was never destined to be a star. And now he’s 62 and handing us this, a three-act, hour-long sort-of concept album that sounds like soaring, skin-prickling jazz and Nick Drake and chamber music and neat pop and nursery rhymes and avant-folk and late-60’s psych and drone-prog and is partly sung in Spanish and Italian- and it’s every bit as good and/or bad as you’re thinking that’s going to be.
Act One feels the most connected, the most bothered about its listener, but/and also the most personal: jazzily-chorded, sweet, gloomy and yearning, four songs (three written with long-time partner Alfie) and one instrumental of love and loss, each lit up by unexpected melodic twists and turns, ethereal trombones and saxes (some from Gilad Atzmon), sudden moments of straight-ahead, no-bollocks beauty and male and female voices of fragility and melancholy. Wyatt’s own voice seems more rounded, more whole, darker than before; his mates’ backing is strong and redolent, spare at times, textured and labyrinthine at others. Opener Stay Tuned feels like archetypal Wyatt- nothing too unexpected, nothing too alienating, but layered and made intriguing by Eno’s keyboards (good to see he’s escaped Paul Simon and Bryan Ferry with imagination intact). Just As You Are flies with some beautifully-restrained guitar (from Paul Weller, perhaps surprisingly) and a lovely, lovely melody sung by Wyatt and Monica Vasconcelos; You, You and AWOL are pained and clutching, intense and bled-through with depression and psychosis, but lifted high by bass and violin and trumpet and piano. Anachronist wraps the Act up in soft-jazz wondering and wandering: warm and only a little weird.
A Beautiful Place kicks off Act Two with something even more accessible: a lovely little swinging sung-poem- co-written with Eno- that muses on the bleakness and smallness of the English townscape; Be Serious, bolstered by some more sympathetically strong guitar from Weller, is another musically jaunty, lyrically wry, playing with the denial inherent in our use of language. It’s all so . . . normal: this can’t last, surely?
Well, yes, for a while yet. Instrumental On The Town Square is a jolly, inconsequential but enjoyable steelpan-led jam; Mob Rule is short and punchy, Wyatt’s lyrics, as ever, utterly direct and unpretentious; A Beautiful Place’s slower, more introspective and angry sister A Beautiful War is simple and wraps up its rage in melody and sweetness. It’s all been English, so far- a celebration and development of Wyatt’s belief in the stupidity and glory of English culture, English attitudes, English relationships, the English language. If he’d stopped here, this would’ve been one of the best albums of the last few years. But warnings are sounded with Out Of The Blue– Eno’s voice is treated electronically, more discomfort is engendered by saxes and keyboards that deliberately clash and jerk, the phrase ‘you’ve planted your everlasting hatred in my heart’ repeats and reverberates to emphasize the cancers set in motion by the war in Iraq. We’re a long way from bucolic Lincolnshire now.
And we don’t come back. Act Three sees Wyatt refusing to sing in English, in a kind of protest, apparently, against the murder and torture (literal and figurative) the English-speaking peoples have been inflicting with more and more ferocity on everyone else. The temptation is to be cynical about this, of course, but maybe we all just do what we can do: Wyatt’s weapons are his words and music. The real disappointment of this final act is that it’s all a bit meandering, at times unpleasant and disengaged: there’s little here that invites or tempts or embraces in the way the rest has done. Maybe he intends that to be the case, maybe not.
So Del Mondo (in Italian) is gentle but prickly, Cancion de Julieta (in Spanish) is harsh and long and clanging; both showcase Wyatt’s vocals at their most uncompromising. Pastafari is an irritating and pointless vibraphone piece; Fragment is just that- a part-reprise of Just As You Are, discordant and disconnected; Hasta Siempre Comandante rambles with all the self-indulgent drunkenness only jazz can do, redeemed a little by Latin dance rhythms hidden behind discordant vocals. And that’s it. Act Three. It improves with repeated listening, but not enough- it stays hard and fuck-you and wilful and commitedly hard-to-like.
So it can feel a bit of a relief when the album ends and that’s a real shame, because, for forty or so minutes, this old bloke in a wheelchair had been intriguing, affecting, funny and provocative, a magical antidote to the soulless retro conservatism of most people a third his age. You know what to do.
Release date: 8/10/07
Artist website: www.dominorecordco.com/robertwyatt