Monday, 22 October 2007


Like The Drift, Wyatt’s new album Comicopera seems to have been consciously undersold by its reviewers. The now familiar landmines of three stars (for devotees only) and the re-employment of the word “experimental” as a pejorative glisten like newly rained upon roadkill, even though Wyatt’s methodology is the same “experiment” which he has been carrying on for nearly four decades. While Wyatt continues to be “respected,” it is in the same, nervy way as Walker; just as secretly they only want Scott wearing his 41-year-old cloak of loneliness, they desire only the Robert Wyatt of “Shipbuilding” – the tragic story, the plaintive voice singing songs everyone can understand, a cuddly rock Alan Bennett. Such is the continued curse of market economics and the associated pseudo-socialism which insist upon only that brand of art which is “easy to understand,” and condemn any art which suggests more complex and painful patterns as anti-people, and in certain heavily vested corners a global evil comparable with the state capitalism which masqueraded as Communism in the East (although “Marxist” is as a predictable rule always substituted for “state capitalist”).

There is very little of comfort about Comicopera; indeed it may be Wyatt’s most unsparing record since The End Of An Ear (but again, how contemptuously ironic is the term “Wyatting,” an act – if act it be – of contempt towards the minds and hearts of ordinary people, and if its purpose is to clear pubs, then doesn’t the perpetrator, in the end, despise the music as much as he would like everyone else to?). Divided into three parts, the first (Lost In Noise) is for this listener the hardest going, not because of its frequently lovely music – “Just As You Are,” a carefully barbed but fear-filled duet between Wyatt and Monica Vasconcelos, is one of the most spellbindingly beautiful songs he has ever written – but because of its unwinding account of a collapsing love and the final ghosts which herald loneliness; “A.W.O.L.” is scarcely bearable in its pitiless account of “the tick and the tock of the damnable clock” (cf. “The little clock’s stopped ticking now/We’re swallowed in the stomach room”) ticking its hapless protagonist a few further seconds towards solitary death. I do not intend it as an insult to Wyatt if I say that I don’t have any room for this kind of thing in my life at the moment, since this is toweringly great music – it’s just that I existed through five years of knowing, smelling, breathing and re-breathing every fibre of that dust-filled room and now I’m breathing fresh air; this I hope separates me from the red-nosed circus acts of the “my life is OK now and therefore this record’s no good” variety which certain, infamous scribes have been allowed to make their stock in trade. I applaud Wyatt for reminding me so gracefully but I will leave the making of it to others more emotionally qualified.

The second “act” (The Here And The Now) starts out as a bemused but amused sixtysomething look at the increasingly absurd world in which he is compelled to live; “A Beautiful Peace” and the self-mocking pro-atheist ode “Be Serious” remind us of Wyatt’s vocal and songwriting debts to Ray Davies, but soon passes towards graver matters; the government’s foreign policy is suitably belittled in “Mob Rule,” cut down to the level of a Town Hall meeting, before “A Beautiful War” – utilising the same tune as “A Beautiful Peace” – begins to chill the blood as the pilot in Iraq prepares to unload his cache of bombs (“Re-live my beautiful day…/How they got no time to flee/Total success/We’ll all be free”).

And then, in “Out Of The Blue” – this album’s “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road” – it all blows apart; an uncompromising, arduous drone of synthesised choirs (Eno’s sampled voice combined with Wyatt’s sampled voice) hum down the eaves of destruction as Wyatt, with plaintive ire, delivers his lyric to a descending tune which could have come straight out of 1967 (“Secret” by Virgin Sleep?). Behind and around him, Annie Whitehead’s multiple trombones, as free as I’ve ever heard her play, fulfil the Mongezi Feza role, cascading, sliding and screaming in torrents (Gilad Atzmon’s solemn tenor honks acting as an anchor), while Wyatt surveys the beautiful day from the perspective of the victim – “Something unbelievable has happened to the floor,” “The upper storey’s out of reach/The stair’s no longer there.” Finally he settles into an intense chant of “You’ve planted your everlasting hatred in my heart.” It is virtually the last thing he sings on the record in discernible English.

In the final section (Away From The Fairies) he escapes, finds both rebellion and refuge in other languages; singing songs of unceasing battle for justice and a better world in Italian (“Del Mondo”) or Spanish; the Lorca interpretation (“Cancion de Julieta”) is a melancholic tour-de-force, Chucho Merchan’s multiple bowed basses acting as a viciously slicing string section while Wyatt demonstrates that his trumpet playing continues to improve in leaps and bounds, though he wisely avoids Feza’s virtuoso triple tonguing in favour of carefully sustained tones of Miles/Chet moodiness (in addition he handles most of the percussion duties on Comicopera; his cymbal work is as slashing and angry as I’ve heard him since the Softs days). Finally, as if to prove that it is we, not he, who have changed, he concludes the recital with a lustrous reading of “Hasta Siempre Comandante,” the folk song sampled by Charlie Haden on his Liberation Music Orchestra recording of “Song For Che” – and, of course, Wyatt covered the latter on Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard a lifetime (32 years) ago. This seems to furnish some hope with which to end the record, but note how the tune finally dissolves into the agonised screams of Maurizio Camardi’s saxophones – remembering not just Gato Barbieri’s contributions to Liberation Music Orchestra, but also that long-term hurt cannot easily be wiped away in the space of an hour. The record’s bosom is broad enough to begin with an Anja Garbarek tune (“Stay Tuned”) and take in an extended piece of avant-ambience (vibraharpist Orphy Robinson’s “Pastafari” which Wyatt compares in his notes to taking a swim), and, like all the best and most lasting of art, doesn’t go for the easy answer.