Wednesday, November 07, 2007
"It's really about the unpredictable mischief of real life - it's sort of chaotic our life. It's about humans and the things we turn to, and looking for fun and stimulus and meaning and stuff." Robert Wyatt
Robert Wyatt is one of my favourite singers, writers, makers of wonderful music. It is with pleasure that I can introduce you to this, his latest album, and first for Domino.
I first discovered Robert Wyatt's music when borrowing, and then stealing, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard from a library. Then came a second-hand purchase of the 'Shipbuilding' 7", which I played repeatedly, not even thinking to flip it over. A few years later, it was my near-20 years late discovery of the Mid Eighties compilation and Old Rottenhat that really fixed my glue to Wyatt's music. I was obsessed (and not least by that very b side to 'Shipbuilding' - 'Memories of You'). It seemed in Robert's 'home' recordings, these unfinished-sounding, and barely accompanied, odds and ends - covers, originals, spoken pieces - with just wonderful synthesizers, percussion and piano to support the familiarly fragile voice, I had found home. I've been delving further and repeatedly into his deep well for a few years now, and it is no surprise to even find his songs cropping up in many of my DJ sets, as well as my home listening. With Dondestan, Shleep, Cuckooland and now Comicopera, Wyatt seems to have found his own 'home' music - each record intimate and sophisticated, played with (the suggestion of) ease and curiosity. And also fun.
Comicopera, divided into three Acts - 'Lost in Noise', 'The Here and The Now', and 'Away with the Fairies', continues where these albums had left off, but it is initially less dense than Cuckooland, and more light and live sounding. Robert says he was keen to have the sound of a group of musicians playing in the room together, but more importantly, to have friends (furthermore than musicians who play these particular instruments), playing together:
"Music isn't just an abstract pleasure, it is company, when you play a record. Why I like Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, the Big Bands - is because every character in the band is identifiable as that person - there's this group of humans in a room." (Wyatt)
That gives this record its sense of spontaneity, despite its deliberate pacing and construction as something of a three Act 'Opera':
"Musically, the changes are quite abrupt. And the narrator actually shifts. At the end of the second section I'm both the euphoric bomber ('A Beautiful War'), and the apoplectic bombed person ('Out of the Blue'). It shifts about in a way that I haven't consciously done in the past."
In Act One, the album opens with a plea for patience - Anja Garbarek's 'Stay Tuned', and as stated, a fair amount of light has crept in (from which end of the tunnel is it not clear...). We are treated to love songs (of sorts), before Act Two threatens to brighten further, with a community and carnival-esque feel pervading the mood; before at the close of the Act, the bombing takes place. Act Three, 'Away with the Fairies', the darkest, and most noisy, recalls some of the unsettling mood of his 80s productions, where odd synths underpin the voice and minor chords are wedged next to each other in close chromatic proximity. Act Three also marks the shift from songs in English language to Italian and Spanish - a pivotal moment in the record from which point onwards Robert claims he refused to sing in English, as a protest -
"After the bombing - it's to do with feeling completely alienated from Anglo-American culture at that point. Just sort of being silent as an English-speaking person, because of this fucking war. The last thing I sing in English is "you've planted all your everlasting hatred in my heart". I then wander off round the world searching for different kinds of meaning - whether its avant guard, or revolution, or serialist fantasy, or religion, or all those things. Pretentious or what?! Well I don't care anymore."
Before you reach that final segment (the inverse of the traditional Comic Opera light and uplifting ending), this feels like it could even be Robert Wyatt's 'pop' album. He's openly a fan of 'tunes', and the deep influence of songs such as 'Raining in My Heart', covered on his last record, has perhaps had an impact on the melodies and compressed structures of these new performances. But the depth of the journey here, from start to finish, is magnificent, and stopping off along the way for the sublime steel pan and sax battle of 'On the Town Square'; or for the frantic song of bomber versus bombed, featuring Brian Eno's sampled voice replayed by Wyatt on synthesizer, 'Out of the Blue', seems only to be expected in an album as enjoyable and ambitious as this.
"Greeks divided things into Comedy and Tragedy, and Comedy didn't mean funny, it meant just, 'about human foibles', as opposed to tragedy which is about Gods and Destiny. So this is about human foibles. I want to emphasise that because I do end up singing a kind of hymn to Che Guevarra, but I'm talking about human foibles, I'm not looking for new Gods."
There are some of Wyatt's best songs here, seemingly tossed off with ease. There are love songs of sorts, but love songs of tolerance as much as simple delight. 'Just As You Are', for example, is further from the sentimentality of the Billy Joel/Barry White classic, than should be possible with such familiar linguistic terrain. It is about living with someone else. The emphasis here is on realism; on the gaps and distance as much as the closeness, between lovers. The song crops up later in 'Fragment', in what sounds like reversed, compressed form, an anarchic and crude remix - either undermining the beauty of its original version, or emphasising, via cut up repetition, the implicit contentedness versus resignation of the lines "I'm never going to change a thing about you". Songs like 'Just As You Are' and 'A Beautiful War', are, melodically so sweet, but they veer away from any safe 'pop' territory in the tension between mellifluous beauty and lyrical harshness. For others the juxtaposition is the other way around, but it is this tension, which is central to Comicopera's mastery.
"When I'm writing I write completely on automatic - actually a better word is composing, meaning putting together, because I didn't write the first song or the last one - so when I'm putting together a record I do it completely instinctively, like an animal hunting for food or whatever. And only once I've done it do i work out what I was up to. I don't think beforehand, I think afterwards. I find that plans ahead, concepts ahead limit you."
Whether or not the concepts that help elevate this record above a mere loose collection of songs came before or after, it is clear that the editing process, the composition here, and the songwriting itself, is quite astounding. There is so much to find, and to return to, in the generous 'company' of this record.